Foes plot rewrite of screener play

Indies, helmers mobilize against ban

The firestorm of opposition to the ban on Oscar screeners continued to grow over the weekend, with several new developments fanning the flames.

  • U.K. indie distributors including Pathe, Momentum and Optimum decried the ban and vowed to ignore it.

  • An increasing number of indie execs now say they believe that rather than the MPAA’s stated goal of curbing pirarcy, the ban is motivated as much by a desire to give studio pics a better shot at winning Oscars.

  • A number of comments on Variety.com’s discussion boards suggest a backlash could be brewing. Several Academy members said they would factor the ban into their choices, and be inclined to vote against studio pics if the ban remains.

  • Director Norman Jewison penned a letter to MPAA chief Jack Valenti stating his opposition. Jewison heads a coalition of filmmakers with illustrious Oscar histories, including Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, who are mobilizing against the ban and are expected to issue a formal statement this week.

  • The Chicago Film Critics Assn. was among six more critics groups adding their voices to the fray, calling the screener ban “one of the most ill-advised and potentially destructive ideas to emerge from Hollywood since the blacklist”

While no manifesto has yet emerged from last week’s summit meeting of the studio specialty divisions, a second huddle took place Friday via conference call, this time involving unaffiliated indie distribs.

The initial meeting was held early last week in a conference room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, with every studio-funded specialty division represented aside from Fox Searchlight and the nascent Warner Independent Pictures.

And while participation in the private confab is understood to have resulted in some knuckles being rapped by corporate parents, the group seems unlikely to back down without airing some kind of defense plan.

“It’s wonderful to see the independent film business banding together in this way,” said publicist Donna Daniels, the spokeswoman for the independent group. “I don’t know that there’s going to be any single solution to come out of this but the group will probably touch base again this week to talk about how to approach the problem. There are a lot of questions and ideas coming out of every corner on this.”

The fact that traditional rivals like Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features, and now their independent brethren such as Lions Gate, Newmarket and IFC Films are even talking to exchange ideas on the issue and discuss common strategy gives some indication of the unprecedentedly united front building against the studio and MPAA-backed screener edict.

“I think there are a lot bigger issues here than just piracy,” Newmarket president Bob Berney said. “Personally, I think it’s about excluding the independents from the awards or at least making it more difficult for us to be included. It seems a very last-minute, impractical solution, which was reached without consulting anyone but the studios.”

The opposition front also extends to actors, producers, agents and managers, a growing number of which have signed on as supporters of a protest statement coordinated last week by IFP/New York executive director Michelle Byrd.

The IFP protest now has some 130 adherents. Industry figures that signed on since Friday include producers John Wells, Bob Degus, Michael Nozik, Laura Bickford, Cary Woods and Janet Yang, actor Willem Dafoe, screenwriter Jim Taylor, producer’s rep John Sloss and directors Ang Lee, Barbet Schroeder and Nora Ephron.

“While they haven’t come out with an official position, the agencies, publicists and managers have been extremely helpful and supportive behind the scenes in getting the word out to their clients,” IFP/New York’s Byrd said.

Jewison’s upcoming Michael Caine starrer “The Statement” from Sony Classics is one film likely to be affected in its Oscar chances by the screener veto.

“When every Academy member can view all the films in contention, then it’s a fair and even playing field,” wrote Jewison. “However, when the small independent film — which depends on its artistic appeal rather than wide commercial distribution by an MPAA member — is now denied access, the playing field becomes unfair and uneven.”

“Artistic accomplishments in film should not be compromised in an effort to protect the interests of the major studios,” the letter continued.

Clearly, the screener issue has spiraled into a much larger movement as the ramifications of the ban and its impact not only on the awards field but, more importantly, on the commercial outlook of specialty releases begins to sink in.

Pundits also are pointing out the MPAA’s reluctance to acknowledge just how difficult it will be for voting Academy members to see the entire field of end-of-year releases being positioned for awards consideration. In 1989, when screeners first were coming into use, 37 films were released in November and December, while 82 films hit the market in the same period last year.

National film critics groups also rallied last week against the ban, with opposition coming either in official statements or informal comments from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., National Society of Film Critics, Broadcast Film Critics Assn., New York Film Critics Circle and Online Film Critics Society.

The Chicago Film Critics Assn. late Friday issued a statement slamming the MPAA’s position as “dubious and myopic.”

“For the vast majority of the public, this decision will mean nothing,” said the Chicago crix statement. “For those in the industry, however, this seems a notion conceived in desperation, implemented in chaos, and ultimately deleterious to the very art and industry it purports to support.”

Like other critics orgs, the Chicago group backs the MPAA’s broader efforts to curtail film piracy. Membership of the org requires a pledge never to sell or copy screeners, press kits, CDs or other promotional material. However the statement calls the no-screener solution “silly and ineffective.”

“The ban may seriously damage the ability of both critics and Academy voters to recognize award-worthy films, and of filmmakers to make them,” the statement said.

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