Actors blast screener compromise

SAG's Pisano, Gilbert stress dismay & disappointment

Hollywood’s actors blasted Jack Valenti’s compromise on screeners, and said they’re being treated as second-class citizens.

In a stinging letter to Valenti, Guild CEO Bob Pisano and prexy Melissa Gilbert stressed their “personal dismay and institutional disappointment” at the deal, which excludes the 2,100 members of the SAG Awards nominating committee from receiving screeners as they have in the past.

“The implication of your action is that you regard Screen Actors Guild members as less trustworthy than Academy members,” Gilbert and Pisano said. “If you have evidence to support that conclusion, we would like to review it. If you do not, we suggest that this discrimination is arbitrary and born of expediency rather than reason.”

The duo noted that SAG has supported MPAA initiatives repeatedly and warned that such support will not be automatic in the future.

“Against a backdrop of SAG’s repeated cooperation with the MPAA, it is especially difficult for us to understand or accept your decision to treat our members as second-class artists,” the letter said. “Suffice it to say that your actions will not enhance our future ability to win actors’ hearts and minds for MPAA causes.”

SAG stood alone Thursday among Hollywood’s talent guilds, opposing the MPAA’s compromise solution that partially lifts the org’s three-week-old screener ban for Academy members.

The WGA West and DGA endorsed the compromise agreement as necessary to put the brakes on piracy. It was unclear if SAG would pursue any legal action or simply stamp its feet.

SAG secretary-treasurer James Cromwell told Daily Variety that he was skeptical as to the impact of clamping down on awards-season screeners.

“The question is: Can you believe that anybody in the Academy has any interest whatsoever in making a living doing piracy?” Cromwell said. “My understanding about piracy is that most of it is done at the labs, on an assemblage, or in a projection room — long, long before the question of screeners comes out.”

Cromwell said he understood the spirit behind the ban in light of recent attempts by studios to obtain comprehensive anti-piracy legislation from Congress. “Look, I understand that there’s a downside to presenting a proposal for federal legislation on piracy when some senator or congressman could turn around and say ‘Well you’re great ones to talk! Don’t you send out 50,000 screeners to every Tom, Dick and Harry in the industry?'”

Cromwell also decried the effect a screen ban might have on on SAG’s award show, broadcast Feb. 22 on TNT. “SAG, and the SAG Foundation depend on that award show, it’s a very big part of our profile and presence with the public, as well as the money it generates for the foundation, which is considerable,” he added. “So it’s no small issue if you obviate the ability to do it.”

The compromise plan calls for VHS tapes to go out only to the roughly 6,000 Academy members.

SAG had issued a vague statement of support earlier this week, saying it was “very encouraged” that the MPAA was reconsidering the ban while also saying it hoped to work with the org to provide screeners to SAG nominating committee members.

By contrast, the WGA had issued a statement of opposition to the ban last week, saying it created a disadvatage for smaller films. But on Thursday, it applauded what it called a “reasonable compromise.”

“This will allow independent films the chance to compete on an equal playing field,” WGA West prexy Victoria Riskin said. “Recognition by the Academy can turn small films in limited release into overnight hits.”

Riskin also said that piracy was a serious concern, adding that she hopes future technology would allow for a return to wider distribution of screeners.

Even though the WGA and DGA both present awards shows in the weeks prior to the Academy Awards, the studios have not sent screeners in the past to the entire WGA or DGA memberships. Both orgs have about 12,000 members.

DGA prexy Michael Apted voiced support Thursday by noting that the agreement represented the “inherent difficulty” in balancing access to independent films while guarding against piracy.

“No solution is ideal, however, this experimental approach ensures Academy members direct access to all films under consideration, and smaller independent films in particular, yet takes a necessary step in the fight to protect the work of directors and other creative artists from the peril of digital piracy,” Apted said.

Apted noted the new policy is experimental and carries an unknown impact on filmmakers. “The DGA plans to review and evaluate the impact of this experiment and assist the MPAA and the Academy in developing approaches for future award seasons,” he added.

The DGA also said it will continue its long-standing practice of private member screenings of films as a lead-up to its awards show on Feb. 7.

Members of SAG’s nominating committee are chosen at random and generate 25 noms in five film categories for the SAG Awards. All 98,000 SAG members are eligible to vote on the nominations, which are closely tracked as an indication of Oscar sentiment since actors comprise about 23% of the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the largest branch.

SAG nom committee members have usually been allowed free admission to Los Angeles-area theaters during awards season but exhibs decided to pull the perk for other SAG members during the past awards season.

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