Critics, niche units call ban plan unfair

Distribs not hampered by move, plan to send screeners

Film critics rarely agree, but the various crix orgs are united in their disdain of the screener ban compromise announced Thursday by the Motion Picture Assn. and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Jean Oppenheimer, president of the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Assn., said the group would likely maintain the decision to cancel its annual awards, despite the MPAA’s Thursday announcement.

“The way people were feeling the other day was, unless screeners are going to be given to all critics’ groups, the group will want to stick with the cancellation,” she told Daily Variety. “But until I talk to everybody, I can’t say 100%.”

LAFCA made the decision at its regularly scheduled meeting last Saturday and released a statement on Sunday stating that unless the MPAA dropped its ban, the group would not vote on awards this year.

The National Society of Film Critics released a statement early Thursday stating that the group would continue to vote for its year-end awards. New York magazine film critic and NSFC chair Peter Ranier said the vote was a fairly close one.

“Of the 50-plus members, somewhat more than half voted for keeping the awards,” he said. “It seemed like canceling the awards would compound the problem.”

However, Ranier said that he considers the screener ban to be essentially useless.

“I defy anyone to point to critics’ organizations as the leading culprits or even bit players in this very real problem of piracy,” he said. “If it’s not a red herring, it’s a deep pink herring. If the MPAA put half as much energy into fighting piracy as they are about this whole brouhaha, we wouldn’t haven’t gotten into this mess in the first place.”

The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which votes for the Golden Globes, sounded a similarly discordant note.

“This announcement comes 24 hours after I personally expressed to MPAA president Jack Valenti, and in writing to all Hollywood studio heads, the HFPA’s condemnation of piracy and assured them that HFPA members would accept any security safeguards imposed on other groups,” HFPA prexy Lorenzo Soria said in a statement.

“The fact that screeners now will be sent to about 6,000 people but not to the 90 members of the HFPA creates an impression that issues other than piracy are involved. We are now evaluating our options to have a decision reversed that we regard as unfair, completely arbitrary and an assault on the professional integrity of our members.”

Specialty arms not sold

The MPAA’s decision also failed to placate some studio specialty divisions. One such head, a member of the coalition known as the Independent Working Group, said he expected to issue a statement today.

“The reaction is overwhelmingly negative, on the outraged side,” he said. “The creative community is entirely disenfranchised by this. I’m flummoxed by the fact that the statement does not even include the suggestion to form a coalition for long-term solutions by studios and indie divisions.”

He added that Jack Valenti failed to address a “significant number” of issues in the decision, issues that will be outlined in a letter that will be sent to Valenti’s office.

Oppenheimer added that she doesn’t see the screeners as even being particularly germane to the issue of piracy.

“It does not attack the problem of piracy,” she said. “I don’t think any of our members have ever been accused of pirating, or selling the tapes on eBay. It’s much more likely that it comes from within, from the studios.”

Andrew Johnston, chairman of the New York Film Critics’ Circle, took a much different view, saying that his group never gave any serious consideration to the possibility of canceling their annual awards.

“It would deny recognition to worthy films and we’d be doing the same thing as the screener bans,” Johnston said. “Screwing over worthy movies.”

Johnston’s greater concern, he said, was never about the ban affecting critics, but affecting the films. And with many of the smaller movies coming from nonsignatory distributors that aren’t bound by the ban, he doesn’t see a problem.

Indeed, it seems likely that distribs not hampered by the ban plan to send screeners.

Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films Releasing, said that his company would “pursue every means possible to see that those who need to see our films will have the opportunity to do so.”

Further divisions?

However, IFP executive director Michelle Byrd saw another issue lurking within the MPAA announcement.

I don’t think it’s going to stop the outcry,” she said. “If anything, it’s going to become even more complicated because people are going to be divided.”

GreeneStreet Films co-founder John Penotti, one of the key figures in the IFP-shepherded movement against the ban, said “It’s just not good enough. Why would it be just Academy members and not the DGA, the WGA and all other guilds and organizations that are so important to the independent film community?”

(David Rooney in New York contributed to this report.)

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