MPAA: Give peace a chance

Acad-only plan scrambles fans and foes

Now that the decision is made, don’t assume that the argument is over.

After vociferous opposition from various sectors of the film community, the MPAA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences jointly confirmed they had reached a compromise to the screener ban Thursday.

The plan will allow screener copies of pics in contention for 2003 honors to be sent to Academy members only in videocassette format with procedures in place to protect them, as predicted (Daily Variety, Oct. 21). It is left to the studios to decide whether to watermark and encrypt VHS screeners and which films to send out.

The compromise plan, which the MPAA and Academy drew up and which has been signed by the MPAA’s signatory companies, is at this stage limited to a one-year term.

However, time is of the essence. Most years, the studios have screener plans in place by this time; this is a shorter-than-usual Oscar season, which adds pressure. On Thursday, most studio execs said they haven’t decided yet if they’ll send out screeners, or of how many titles.

Reaction to the announcements (the MPAA and the Acad sent out separate releases) was mixed. Some applauded the plan. But indie film companies were angry that their concerns were not addressed.

The Screen Actors Guild sent a letter to MPAA topper Jack Valenti, expressing “personal dismay and institutional disappointment” at the exclusion of the 2,100 SAG nominating committee members and urging everyone “to reconsider your improvident decision.” The letter was signed by SAG prez Melissa Gilbert and national exec director Robert Pisano.

Others in the film biz expressed fatigue. One studio exec sighed, “I’m fine with any decision, I just want this whole thing to be over.”

However, as part of the compromise the studios pledged to organize “special screenings for other award ceremony groups.”

The Academy’s central role in the announcement is a new twist. Though the org was at the center of the controversy, it wasn’t involved in the original announcement when the studios and MPAA planned a complete ban of screeners. Both organizations Thursday stressed the motivation remains to defeat piracy but both conceded that the revised plan was in part motivated by the level of opposition they have received since the ban was announced,

Under the new plan, each Academy member will be asked to sign a pledge to the Academy that he or she will not allow the videocassette screeners out of their individual homes and will not pass them along to relatives and friends. The studio will messenger the screener to the home or office of the voter, who will designate one person to sign for it.

The Academy will messenger this agreement to all its members Friday.

The agreement authorizes the Acad to convey the member’s name and address to the studios, which will then decide which screeners to send out or whether to send out any screeners at all.

This is the first time that the Acad has supplied the names of voters to any studio. However, voters are not required to return this, meaning that it could be all 5,800 voting members, or only a fraction of them who are on the list. The Acad will only supply the names of those who agree to the plan.

If a pirated screener is found connected to a member, that person will be immediately expelled from the Academy.

“This is a severe penalty and provides a level of comfort regarding custody of these tapes, which is unique to members of the Academy,” said Valenti and AMPAS president Frank Pierson in a joint statement.

Pierson was traveling Thursday and unavailable for comment. But Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy added: “We’re not a detective agency. The MPAA will have to come to us with airtight proof that a particular screener, which can be traced to an Academy member, became the basis of a pirated version. If that individual is found to be guilty, we will expel them.”

Davis said the Academy board would decide on expulsion and beyond that, “we are not going to take legal action, nor are we in a position to, but the rights-holders might.”

Watermarking and encryption of screeners sent out are at the individual studios’ discretion, Valenti told Daily Variety.

“All the companies have reserved the right to watermark tapes using whatever methods they choose to use,” he said. “That’s in the hands of the studios. Once the Academy gets the member’s signature and sends it to the studios, they are no longer involved.”

Studio execs are mulling how to deal with screeners. Nobody contacted had firmed any contingency plans for duplicating titles, waiting for a final decision on whether they’d be allowed to send out tapes. Several studio people said Thursday that they were not sure if they’d send out cassettes. “The honchos are still resisting this idea,” one studio exec said. “They’ve never liked screeners and they don’t like this compromise.”

Some studio people however said they were fine with the decision and said they were appalled at some groups’ “sense of entitlement,” behaving as if they are being denied something that is their right.

Sources said Fox on Thursday advocated widening the screeners mail-out to any organization that can comply via signed pledges or enforceable sanctions, but that proposal was shot down.

There seems to be a split decision of how studios will handle this. Some predicted that studios are likely to cut back on the numbers of films sent out. Others said it will be all or nothing, that some studios will not pick and choose among their titles, but will either embrace the screener OK or refrain from mailings altogether.

Meanwhile, the specialty divisions of the majors said they were mystified by the decision and upset that the statements did not directly address the concerns they’d expressed in the last few weeks. The specialty divisions are understood to be meeting Friday and may issue a statement.

One insider said they would be working to mobilize high-level Academy members to boycott the signed agreements.

About two weeks after the initial announcement of a complete screener ban, the Academy was at the center of so much dialogue that Pierson phoned Valenti with their plans for how this might work. “The key was an agreement with members and the Academy’s willingness to put teeth into it,” Davis said. Pierson also praised Valenti saying he had “worked like a man possessed to see that this compromise stayed alive.”

Valenti too said Thursday that he had become “concerned at the level of opposition from the finest people in our business, all of whom are friends of mine.”

Asked why this was restricted to AMPAS members only, Valenti responded that the Academy was singular in that it has under its canopy every element in the business — for example, actors, writers, directors, set designers, below-the-line talent and publicists whose membership is global.

He said the second consideration was what he called the Academy’s “willingness to do something Draconian,” if a screener is pirated. “Anyone in the Academy treasures that membership,” Valenti said, “and the idea of being expelled is nauseous. I would be horrified if I had to give up my membership.”

“The best copyright you can have is to keep the screener out of the hands of a pirate by keeping it in someone’s home.”

Valenti also stressed that the idea for the compromise was also not to pass value judgments on particular releases. “Under this plan, all films are treated as equals. There can be no misread of the purpose of this initiative, which is the long-term health of this industry for films large and small,” Valenti said.

(David Rooney contributed to this report.)

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