Compromise is a start, but the fight goes on

Guest column

IT IS ENORMOUSLY GRATIFYING that the MPAA has responded to the film community (including the Independent Working Group, comprising the studio subsidiaries most affected by the screener ban including Miramax, the IFP and all the filmmakers who signed letters and came forward in protest), and found a way to allow for screeners to be sent to Academy members.

Since the ban was announced, I have received numerous letters asking for help from Academy members. Many are older, some are housebound or have just chosen to pursue their film careers outside New York and Los Angeles.

John Irving, who lives in Vermont, wrote me that the ban “discriminates against hardworking professionals in the movie industry” and reminds all of us that Academy members take their membership “very seriously.”

In fact, John’s response to the ban was to opt out and not vote, rather than see the occasional movie that makes it to his neck of the woods. These members have now been re-enfranchised, (John will now vote), and that is a very good thing.

One very unexpected but valuable outcome of the screener ban, was the instant and unprecedented unity within the specialty film community. We knew immediately that this ban was a grave threat to the progress of bringing independent and foreign films to wide audiences. Losing potential awards recognition for these types of films directly threatened their ability to reach the filmgoing public. We could not sit by and let this happen. We owed this to all the independent filmmakers working around the world.

SO WE GOT TOGETHER, literally in the same room. To my great surprise, I found myself putting aside all my competitive instincts, sitting across the table from individuals who I had always believed to be equally competitive about me. And it was an amazing honor and a privilege to be able to have this experience. We talked about the screener ban, our love of movies and why we went into this business in the first place. Together we reaffirmed our collective commitment and passion for our profession.

Even though the Academy ban has been repealed, we do not feel that our mission is complete. We are deeply concerned that SAG, BAFTA, the critics across the country and the Hollywood Foreign Press are still cut out of the process. We also want to address the future and what is being done to ensure that the technology is in place so that screeners can be sent in subsequent years.

My colleagues in the Independent Working Group initially agreed with my preference to not speak publicly. I have become such a target over the years for all things Academy-related and we wanted to make sure the dialogue was about the films and the filmmakers and not directed toward one party.

I HAVE NOW, HOWEVER, been asked to come forward on my own to speak on behalf of those who have been disenfranchised by this screener ban.

Some of my colleagues in the Independent Working Group have now been forced to go underground, but I can speak publicly. We fully support the efforts of SAG and BAFTA to work with the MPAA to reverse the ban for their organizations. Both of these groups can put in place exactly the same safeguards that the Academy has put forth. In fact, BAFTA members already sign similar agreements.

There is similarly no reason to discriminate against any members of the media. Members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and critics across the country, who vote for year-end awards and compile top 10 lists, and should be treated the same way that members of the Academy are treated — as hard-working professionals.

I would suggest that we make available to these journalists VHS screeners of films on an as-needed basis. Most of these journalists see many more films than Academy members do in the course of their daily work, but occasionally they do miss things — most often, the smaller independent and foreign language titles.

It would be very easy to police these videos, given the small number of members who will need a given title. These tapes can be individually watermarked, hand-delivered, and should be returned to the studio within a short period of time. This solution would allow the press to do their job.

As a matter of regular business, the independent film companies frequently send out tapes to critics and entertainment journalists as part of their standard publicity efforts. In addition, the marketing of home entertainment products includes the widespread distribution of DVDs and videos to journalists. Why these practices are OK but distribution of screener tapes at year-end is not makes no sense.

THE MPAA AND ACADEMY should be applauded for devising an experimental system for distributing the screeners. However, in fairness, now that they have taken the lead, they should come up with a plan to allow members of BAFTA, SAG, the HFPA, and film critics to receive screeners as well.

I want to commend Frank Pierson on working out a compromise on behalf of the Academy members. On a personal note, I have admired Jack Valenti for years. He has always been fair-minded and the energy and focus he has put into the issue of piracy is tremendously important to all in our business. We should be proud of all that he has done and I hope he gives us another 82 years at the MPAA.

(Harvey Weinstein is co-Chairman of Miramax Films.)

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