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Banish The Ban for film’s sake

“Relax, folks,” was Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman’s advice in this space last week to all of us concerned about the disastrous impact of the MPAA’s screener ban.

If you know and love Tom as I do, you’ll know it’s a sad day for our business when the least relaxed man in the universe starts telling the rest of us to relax. Now, more than ever, we need to act decisively to counter what has in two short weeks become arguably the biggest movie blunder since “Cleopatra.”

I, like everyone else, was completely taken by surprise by the MPAA’s sudden edict. The widespread opposition to The Ban comes as no surprise though and is due to a number of aspects: the arrogant and underhanded manner in which it was implemented, the MPAA’s failure to consider critical positive effects screeners have had on the film industry, and The Ban’s failure to seriously address its purported goal of stemming piracy.

The film industry has undeniably benefited from the specialized market’s evolution into the farm system for the studios. The specialized sector is where actors’ and directors’ work is initially recognized by the industry and the public. Academy recognition is often the first important step in building both a popular fan base and industry acceptance.

This recognition is seriously undercut by the limited access that all Academy members, regardless of work schedule, locale, or mobility, have to specialized films. The equation is clear: A level playing field in order to win prestige leads to better roles and a more diverse culture; kill the screeners and watch diversity stifle. Moreover, if these specialized divisions do not deliver Academy kudos, we will we suffer through another cycle of the shuttering of these shingles and the resultant decrease in choices for moviegoers.

There is more equity money available for specialized film than ever before.

The diversity of financing options is good for the industry as a whole. With a level playing field, indies can compete against the majors, and the investors recognize this. “Pollack,” “In The Bedroom,” “Slingblade,” “Before Night Falls” and “Boys Don’t Cry” were all initially financed by 100% private equity. The Academy recognition they received more than justified the investment. If equity investors perceive specialized films lack the ability to compete, their money will dry up, and fewer quality films will be available for acquisition.

The Academy Awards are recognized today by the general public as a competition based on quality not access. Without screeners, the wider a release and the greater the advertising budget, the greater chance of nomination. Money will speak loudest come awards time, and the Oscars will forever be tarnished, recognized by a cynical public as being just another commodity to be bought and sold.

With so much at stake, is it any surprise that the creative community’s opposition to The Ban is so widespread? How could Jack Valenti, Tom Rothman and the other studio heads not anticipate it? Did they, and if so, why did they chose to ignore it? How come no one is providing these answers?

The Ban was not raised or discussed ahead of time to allow specialized distributors and filmmakers to comment or even to take it into account for their marketing plans. Sales and releases would have been planned differently had The Ban been a factor. To top it off, The Ban is being implanted during the first year of a shortened Academy Award season.

The Ban is a public relations smokescreen to distract attention from the pathetic job that has been done to fight copyright theft. Every film should be watermarked through a variety of measures that would allow for bootlegged copies to be traced back to the source. Ushers at every theatre should be equipped with night vision glasses to spot illegal tapers. Distributors should refuse theatre chains product when they are the source of bootlegged copies. There are numerous options open that are not being put forth.

When we see little evidence of substantive action against piracy, The Ban seems little more than a “wag the dog” to deflect attention away from what is actually a true failure to adequately address the problem.

The Ban on Screeners will do irreparable harm to the specialized film industry. The process utilized to enact The Ban speaks of a true restraint on trade, of the very things that lead to anti-trust suits. If the public recognizes the MPAA and Studios’ willingness to violate principles held dear by all in order to earn another dollar, the industry will forever be judged cynically, dominated by short term corporate bottom lines, with no regard to audiences’ tastes and general diversity. If the public sees the film industry as a faceless force driven for the mighty green instead of artists searching for truth – the public will not hesitate to adopt the practices of piracy that run rampant through every low income nation.

If we want to combat piracy, take real action. If we want to preserve a diverse body of quality work (and the apparatus that supports it), make it as easy on Academy Members to see the diverse offerings every year. The widespread backlash against The Ban is not because Academy Members are lazy or because people don’t want to lose their home film libraries, but because all the writers, directors, producers, and actors who have come out against the ban remember why they pursued this path in life. They recognize that The Ban is a far greater threat to free expression than it is to piracy. Where are our priorities?

Ted Hope founded Good Machine and runs production company This is That with partners Anthony Bregman, Anne Carey and Diana Victor. He is a producer of 2003 releases “American Splendor” and “21 Grams.”

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