Niche units offer screener ban plan

Indie group eyes compromises

This article was updated at 8:20 p.m.

The studios’ specialty divisons offered an olive branch to MPAA chief Jack Valenti on Wednesday, advancing a number of compromises that could facilitate acceptance on at least a limited ban on Oscar screeners.

And Valenti appears to be listening.

The MPAA topper joined the presidents of studio-affiliated specialty divisions, collectively dubbed the Independent Working Group, in a conference call to try to find a middle ground in the screeners dispute.

Among the compromises, first suggested in an Oct. 2 letter to Valenti, is an offer to maintain the DVD ban but allow VHS screeners this year, shipped from secure warehouses and requiring a recipient signature. The tapes would be watermarked or carry an electronic signature traceable to the original recipient. Another suggestion was a provisional exemption from the ban for limited releases.

Top-level representatives from Focus Features, Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics and United Artists took part in Wednesday’s meeting, and the indie heavyweights apparently came away feeling the discussions had been productive.

Further bolstering talks of a compromise, a majority of non-MPAA-affiliated distribs have indicated they are open to considering adherence to the specialty divisions’ proposals.

“We also believe that there is a very good chance that we could convince our peers at non-MPAA companies to join in this effort instead of, as appears to be the case now, taking advantage of the competitive edge the MPAA’s ban has delivered to them,” the Oct. 2 letter said.

The letter, which also expresses the concerns of exhibitors, filmmakers, talent agencies and foreign colleagues, also pledges to form an ad hoc group to examine solutions for next year.

‘Longer-term approaches’

“We look forward to in-depth and fruitful discussions regarding longer-term approaches — watermarking, password-controlled video-on-demand delivery, single-use DVDs etc. — that are not feasible for implementation this year.”

One participant at Wednesday’s meeting said there are several sticking points and some fundamental questions remain.

“The biggest argument is that the industry has been irrevocably tarnished by allowing itself to be portrayed as a collection of behemoth, greedy corporations, who don’t care about the artists who actually create the work that they make their livings off of, and will just thumb their noses at the entire creative community,” said a senior-level specialty player.

“That’s exactly the attitude that the record industry fostered that allowed people to feel it was appropriate to steal other people’s intellectual property,” added the same source. “Our customers are rapidly developing a truly cynical attitude about this industry, and that is the condition under which piracy really flourishes.”

Avenues have been left open for follow-up talks between the distribs and the MPAA later this week, when the specialty units hope a compromise can be hammered out to accommodate indie players without entirely backpedaling on the piracy position.

That compromise depends largely on the results of further talks between Valenti and the seven studios, which now need to rethink the screener ban and agree on other ways to curtail piracy using new technologies.

More opposition forming

Opposition to the screener ban continues to coalesce, with a coalition of prominent film directors expected to publish a broadside Friday in the form of an open letter to the MPAA.

Names known to support the protest include Pedro Almodovar, Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, John Boorman, Joel Coen, Francis Ford Coppola, Atom Egoyan, Jodie Foster, Lasse Hallstrom, James Ivory, Jim Jarmusch, Norman Jewison, Spike Jonze, Ang Lee, Barry Levinson, Richard Linklater, Sidney Lumet, David Lynch, Errol Morris, Mira Nair, Arthur Penn, Robert Redford, Robert Rodriguez, Walter Salles, Paul Schrader, Fred Schepisi, Julie Taymor, Tom Tykwer and Michael Winterbottom.

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