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D’Works books forum for ‘Fog’

Studio deals with ban, rents theater for Acad members

This article was updated at 7:30 p.m.

DreamWorks has secured a single screen in L.A. for four weeks of exclusive screenings for Academy and guild members in advance of a late-December commercial bow of “The House of Sand and Fog.”

Move aims to curry support among award voters for the pic — a highly anticipated drama starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly, based on a novel by “In the Bedroom” scribe Andre Dubus — in the absence of Academy-consideration screeners. But like much else in the continuing screeners controversy, it’s also sparked complaints from the indie distribution community about an uneven playing field this kudos season.

“This is a perfect example of how a studio can throw money at a problem like the screeners ban in a way the indies can’t,” groused an exec at one specialty distrib.

Another independent distribution exec noted DreamWorks supports the screeners ban and suggested the “Sand and Fog” move is a mere “smokescreen” solution for the absence of a true remedy for specialty distribs.

However, Magnolia Pictures’ Eamonn Bowles said he’s keeping an open mind toward the idea while mulling whether his indie outfit may take a similar tack.

“It’s kind of like the Wild West right now,” Bowles said. “All sorts of rules are getting re-evaluated.”

For years, specialty distribs and even studios have “four-walled” their pics on some number of screens during Oscar season. The practice involves guaranteeing a minimum “house allowance” payment to exhibs agreeing to maintain pics on their screens for big blocks of dates.

The four-wall practice has largely been on the fringes since the 1970s, when films like “The Exorcist,” “Billy Jack” and “A Woman Under the Influence” made a splash by using the technique during their commercial runs.

Awards voters only

DreamWorks offering a similar guarantee in its arrangements for a single screen from Nov. 14-Dec. 11 at Laemmle’s Music Hall, a high-visibility venue across Wilshire Boulevard from the Acad. In a departure from the typical pact, the company is limiting the twice-nightly free screenings to awards voters in order to stick to its marketing decision of unspooling the pic to the public Dec. 26.

“We think it is important for voting members of the Academy and the different guilds to see the eligible films the way they were meant to be seen — on the bigscreen,” DreamWorks marketing head Terry Press said. “A movie theater is the best possible showcase of the talents involved in any film, and we want to give Academy and guild members every opportunity to see the work of those on both sides of the camera in ‘House of Sand and Fog.’ ”

Cheaper than screeners

The move isn’t particularly costly to DreamWorks, which would have to pay “three times as much” to send screening videos to all Academy and guild members, Press said. “Anyway, many of the (specialty distribution) companies are owned by deep-pocketed conglomerates, and we’re not,” she added.

Studios and specialty distribs alike are expected to increase the number of Academy and public screenings this season in the absence of video screeners. In one such move, Fox Searchlight recently skedded extra sneak previews in commercial houses for its upcoming Jim Sheridan epic “In America.”

(Marc Graser contributed to this report.)

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