Screener truce draws new fire

Group pushes piracy talks, warns of ignoring filmmakers

Reactions from the creative community and awards orgs to the screener ban compromise ranged from renewed outrage to cautious optimism. But there was no indication the controversy would go away.

The British Academy of Film and Television called the ruling “discriminatory, unwarranted, unnecessary and potentially catastrophic for its film awards and members.”

Studio specialty divisions regrouped Friday morning to discuss further action to what one exec called “an encouraging first step.” Group issued a response to the revised MPAA ban Saturday. Like the group’s Oct. 3 letter opposing the initial veto, the response was signed The Independent Working Group in order to protect company execs subject to a gag order from their studio parents.

Group wants a voice

The group is putting a positive spin on the partial victory but urges it be more involved in further talks on longer-term measures for piracy prevention and cautions against ignoring the outcry of the filmmaking community.

“We thank Jack Valenti for listening to the concerns of the creative community and taking steps to begin remedying the chain of events triggered by the MPAA’s original ban on screeners,” the statement said. “A fundamental change of direction, and one made in the midst of an often emotional debate, cannot have been easy.

“But … we believe the outrage expressed by important organizations including SAG, BAFTA, the HFPA and several critics groups, commands everyone’s attention. … The fight against film piracy should include everyone in the creative community.

“As we have learned from the sobering example of the recording industry, a business perceived by the public as deaf to the concerns of its artists is a business in serious long-term trouble. We look forward to working with Jack to pursue a solid consensus to this year’s awards season and to make sure next year’s approach doesn’t trigger the situation we are experiencing now.”

Dampening the spirit

Meanwhile, the American Cinema Editors added its voice to those of other industry groups opposing the ban, saying the decision “will severely impact our members ability to see all films under consideration during the voting process for our organization’s awards ceremony, the ACE Eddies.”

The NAACP Image Awards also spoke out against the compromise solution, calling it “problematic and potentially discriminatory… It clearly undermines the process that allows concerned organizations to recognize the works of all artists in the film industry. And, as I’m sure you are now aware, it dampens the spirit behind these celebrations.”

Latest protests further echoed the instant, angry responses Thursday from the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

BAFTA film committee chairman and deputy chair of the Academy, Duncan Kenworthy underlined that the British org and its members have always taken copyright piracy seriously, and that the new safeguards being suggested by the MPAA for U.S. Academy members are already standard procedure, adhered to by BAFTA members.

“Moreover, there is not a single case of a BAFTA screener ever having been the source of piracy,” a press release from the org said. In a letter to Valenti, Kenworthy warned that should screeners be restricted to American Academy members this would be seen as “an extraordinary act of injustice which singles out the British Academy and the British industry for damage, as if copyright piracy exists only outside American shores.”

Foreign press fumes

While no group or individual has spoken out publicly against the Academy or its president Frank Pierson for his role in the solution, animosity is spreading within the HFPA especially.

“The studios struck a deal with the Academy,” said one HFPA member who asked to remain anonymous. “The Academy must be delighted with this because now they have a chance to do what they’ve always wanted to do, which is to undermine the strength of the Globes and the BAFTAs and all the other awards.

“This is ridiculous because these awards only helped to heighten anticipation for the Oscars and raise awareness of the films in the marketplace, which is what the distributors want,” added the same source.

HFPA members are bristling at Valenti and the studios’ suggestion that the problem for its voters can be solved by additional screenings.

Given that the org’s members are Los Angeles-based, they have better access than many to screenings. But the members’ obligation for their livelihood to cover studio releases for their respective foreign publications means their remaining time will be spread thinly between a daunting volume of independent and more marginal titles.

The HFPA’s awards-consideration crop of foreign-language films alone this season includes 17 titles to be released by studio affiliates plus 40 other films.

‘Arrogance and ignorance’

The first response to the MPAA decision from international companies came in a statement from the European Film Companies Alliance — a group of prominent production-distribution players that includes Intermedia, Pathe, UGC, Svensk Filmindustri, Nordiskfilm and Zentropa — which called the latest development “a blow to cultural diversity.

“The compromise on the screeners ban is evidence of the MPAA’s sheer arrogance and of its ignorance of the richness of world cinema.”

Statement went on to say that “participation in the Oscar process is one of the best ways to promote European films in the US. To limit promotional activities is akin to erecting barriers to access the U.S. market.”

Within the U.S., the Academy-only solution appears have left the creative community underwhelmed.

“On one hand, I’m pleased that Valenti and the studios recognized and heard the wide dissent to the discussion,” said producer Ted Hope, whose “American Splendor” is an Oscar contender this year. “But it still really feels like a divisive half-measure. It hurts all the specialized films and distributors not to have access to the entire apparatus of critics guilds and awards groups that help these films get out there.”

Hope and others argue that, with many observers predicting a reactionary backlash against the decision — such as voting only for non-studio or limited-release titles — stands to diminish the integrity of all awards this season.

“It’s great that people have been made more aware of piracy and this has made everybody think twice about circulating tapes,” Hope added. “But there are so many other options to stop piracy and still no significant evidence that screeners were ever part of the problem. The industry is really going to be hurt by this.”

“We’re all against piracy but this is a misguided attempt to deal with a shared problem,” GreeneStreet Films co-founder John Penotti said. “The MPAA has to understand and address why this ban is so damaging to us.”

Indies ponder course

Meanwhile, the independent distribs not governed by the MPAA have not yet made their position clear on the updated screener ruling.

“We need to find out about these new conditions and technicalities and how they apply to us,” said ThinkFilm head of distribution Mark Urman. “There are going to be issues. But I’m pleased that the ban has been reversed to this extent. It’s a major victory.”

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