Oscar screeners walk the plank

MPAA, indies seek to balance concerns of piracy vs. visibility

Through some combination of arrogance and ignorance, it seems neither the MPAA nor the major studios anticipated the vehement opposition of the indie film community to the ban on Oscar screeners.

Some studio heads as well as MPAA topper Jack Valenti said they were astonished at the reaction from specialty companies, which have banded together in various groups to express their anger.

As the protest movement solidified amid rumblings of antitrust action, the focus at week’s end turned to finding a compromise — a way to distribute pics to Academy members and other groups while still combating piracy.

Howard Stringer, who was the last studio CEO to be approached and agree to the ban, still believes there should be more discussion about the ramifications of the decision.

Frank Pierson, prexy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, broke the org’s silence on the matter.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to see these movies on the big screen, but it’s difficult,” he says. “Not sending out screeners is distressing to our members.”

There may even be antitrust implications to the ban.

Keith Shugarman, partner in charge of the antitrust group at Washington-based law firm Goodwin Procter, says, “The antitrust risk is more serious if a collective decision was made by the studios rather than if all the studios came to an independent deicision.”

Meanwhile, a group of high-profile directors put out a statement Oct. 10 expressing their displeasure and called for the MPAA ban to be repealed. The 142-name list embraces Hollywood heavyweights, veteran indie mavericks, hot talents and major-name British and European directors.

The furor over the ban has reached such a pitch that even companies that are fierce competitors are cooperating to find a common strategy.

The Independent Working Group, which spans the majors’ specialty labels like Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features, met Oct. 8 with the MPAA chief to try to hammer out a viable compromise.

Though Valenti has held firm on his claims of piracy — of the 68 films sent out on screeners last year, he says, 34 of those were available in pirated editions — the MPAA may be moved to adjust its stance.

Valenti shuttled between Washington, L.A. and New York last week, seeking a middle ground that would placate distribs both big and small.

However, as late as Oct. 9 the MPAA put out an official reminder that while the dialogue continues, the ban is still in effect.

The Independent Working Group is pushing for the MPAA to allow the mailing of copy-protected videocassettes, calling such a switch “the most effective, decisive and easily implemented” near-term step.

While it is still possible to get around technology patented by Macrovision’s technology that makes a film go light and dark when dubbed, it’s a much bigger headache than with DVD.

Tapes must first be converted into a digital format, adding many more steps and hardware in the duplication process than with a DVD, which is already digital.

But the group is also suggesting that a small percentage of the tapes sent out be randomly coded or watermarked so that tapes could be traced back to their recipients should they be copied.

And leaving the legal issues that might arise, Academy voters are concerned about several issues.

One is geography — if they live outside a major city like New York or L.A. they will be unable to see many of the films nominated.

Another is time constraints — they may not be able to see all the films which often are screening at the same time on the same day in conflicting theaters across the city.

Jammed year-end release schedules mean that upwards of 80 films likely will be hitting the market in the crucial November-December Oscar voting period.

Among the films at risk are Focus’ “21 Grams,” Fine Line/HBO’s “American Splendor,” Newmarket’s “Whale Rider,” United Artists’ “Pieces of April,” Fox Searchlight’s “In America” and Miramax’s “The Station Agent” and “Dirty Pretty Things.” Incensed by the ban, several Academy members have suggested the only fitting response is to abstain from voting or to vote only for non-studio pics.

The indies fear it will result in a skewed Oscar race where only the biggest names and pictures will gain attention. The consequences of such a contest remain unclear for the specialty titles released on a fraction of the screens of their studio brethren.

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