All in the family?

The hassle over Oscar screeners is one of those classic cases where the subtext is vastly more interesting than the surface debate.

While a compromise of sorts has now been hammered out, the ideas and epithets left unstated still cast a great deal of light on the present state of the movie business.

The situation also has turned out to be a public relations debacle, pitting much of the creative community against the majors — exactly the opposite of what was originally intended.

To begin with, the proposal to ban screeners vividly illustrates the underlying friction between the supposedly independent companies and their studio parents.

The so-called indies weren’t consulted by their corporate bosses about the decision, nor, in most cases, were they even notified. Yet the precipitous decision affected the “indies” far more than the studios.

Corporate control, we’ve been told, has vastly strengthened the indies, giving them more capital and greater clout with exhibitors — after all, look what Disney’s added muscle has done for Miramax.

Starting with that acquisition, the indie business increasingly has been taken over by the vertically-integrated multinationals.

But problems began to set in.

The Disney-Miramax relationship got bumpy. Corporate accountants increasingly began to impose their protocols on the indies (one can only imagine what GE’s number-crunchers will make of Universal Focus).

And it started to become clear that, despite protestations, the product mix of the so-called classics divisions would be largely determined by the parent company. (Sony Classics, the pioneer classics division, uniquely exercises significant autonomy both in terms of product and marketing.)

When the screeners ban became an instant edict, suddenly the indies were shouting: “How about us? How do we get our movies before the eyes of critics and Oscar voters?”

Their outcry pointed up their doubts as to the basic motivations behind the ban.

It’s no secret, for example, that Barry Meyer of Warner Bros. was a principal instigator. It’s also no secret that the Warners family will have a record investment in year-end releases — consider the likes of “The Last Samurai,” “Matrix Revolutions” and the final “Lord of the Rings.”

If paranoia about piracy were truly the lone issue, Meyer had a right to be alarmed. On the other hand, in protecting his grandiose investment, didn’t he also improve his chances of grabbing a few Oscar nominations for his megapics?

Mindful of the power pyramid, the so-called indies have been circumspect in their criticism of the ban – even though one indie figures it will end up sending out as few as 6,000 screeners rather than as many as 60,000 as in former years.

They’ve also been all but mute about potential antitrust implications. Was the ban truly voluntary and could any major have backed away without recrimination?

Why, then, was Sony’s Howard Stringer, who privately grumbled about the decision, so constrained about openly opposing it?

The compromise achieved last week might allay some of these concerns.

Nonetheless, the speed and finality with which the initial ban was perpetrated has left the indies with a keen sense of apprehension about the future.

Among the questions:

While Oscar voters have been identified as the “heavies” in the process, studies reveal the importance of other piracy leaks in the manufacturing, editing and marketing pipelines. Why haven’t these danger zones been scrutinized before making the precipitous move on screeners?

Secondly, several sources insist that the technology is presently in place to safeguard screeners, but that the studios have not taken the time to analyze these systems.

Given the present compromise, will substantial investments be made in this technology, or, as some indies suspect, is the effort to eliminate screeners so intense that a full-scale ban will simply be delayed a year.

All of which reinforces the main regret among some indies: Not that long ago there were two separate and distinct filmmaking streams – the indie sector and the majors. In acquiring existing indies and initiating new divisions, the majors have quietly confiscated much of the sector, marginalizing the remaining indie filmmakers.

And the screener ban has served as a harsh reminder that, for the long term, this may not serve the interests of either sector.

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