This was supposed to be the year that Oscar campaigns eschewed the nastiness of years past, thanks to the shorter voting schedule and new rules the Academy imposed on studio marketers. But someone at DreamWorks apparently didn't get the memo. Academy brass are up in arms over a full-page ad the studio ran Friday in Daily Variety that promoted ''House of Sand and Fog'''s Best Supporting Actress contender Shohreh Aghdashloo by suggesting that she's an underdog candidate who's more deserving of the honor than the frontrunner, ''Cold Mountain'''s Renée Zellweger. It's a potential violation that the Academy could have punished with penalties from reducing DreamWorks' allotment of tickets to the Feb. 29 Oscar ceremony, to disqualifying the film altogether.
The ad featured four excerpts from print and TV news stories that touted Aghdashloo. Three of them said that, while they expected Zellweger would win, Aghdashloo should win. Academy executive director Bruce Davis described the ad as an ''attack ad,'' telling the Los Angeles Times: ''It's certainly a new and unwelcome step downward in campaigning.'' He said many Oscar voters had seen the ad and had responded ''with varying degrees of surprise and amazement.''
DreamWorks cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg may have defused the controversy with a quick apology. ''The ad was a mistake. It shouldn't have happened,'' he told the Times. ''In a year in which everyone has pledged to take the higher road, we made a very bad and ill-advised mistake.'' Terry Press, the studio's marketing chief, echoed the boss, telling the Times: ''We can be accused of stupidity, but not maliciousness. It's an ad promoting Shohreh. We didn't take out an ad saying 'Don't vote for Renée Zellweger.''' In any case, voters may well have made up their minds by the time the ad ran on Friday, just four days before the balloting deadline.
For her part, Zellweger was also ''disappointed'' in the ad, her spokesperson said in a statement. The actress, who received her third Oscar nod in three years for her ''Cold Mountain'' role, voices a character in DreamWorks upcoming animated feature ''Shark Tale,'' which is due in theaters in October. No, it's not a story about Hollywood.