The battle of the ban

Coalition of foes plots to restore screeners

NEW YORK — As the ramifications of a studio-backed MPAA ban on Oscar screeners sank in, specialty division heavyweights and indie producers met in unprecedented conclaves Wednesday to discuss urgent counter-measures.

United Artists president Bingham Ray instigated a closed-door sit-down with Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, Focus co-prexies David Linde and James Schamus and Sony Pictures Classics co-chairman Tom Bernard. New Line was also represented, while Par Classics’ Ruth Vitale and David Dinerstein were on a phone line. Fox Searchlight and Warner Independent Pictures did not attend and the heads of those companies have been contacted.

Ray declined to discuss the outcome of the meeting but said a joint statement outlining strategy from the participants will be issued this week.

The distribution honchos are expected to meet again to explore all possible avenues of action.

Per participants at the meeting, they are not alone in their opposition to the MPAA ban on screeners. Talent agents are irate about the ban on behalf of their clients — many of whom are on an Oscar-nom commission basis; and foreign rights holders are already fretting because they feel their Oscar contenders’ potential in their respective markets could be damaged by diminished awards cachet.

Meanwhile, IFP/New York exec director Michelle Byrd marshaled producers like Killer Films chief Christine Vachon, This is That topper Ted Hope, and GreeneStreet founder- prexy John Penotti to formulate a response to the MPAA edict.

“Our country was founded on a series of principles including looking out for the little guy,” Hope fumed. “This is a case of seven mega-corporations getting together and looking the other way from the little guy, enacting a rule change in the middle of the game. What this is, is corporate domination.”

The statement that resulted from the IFP huddle condemned the MPAA’s ban and stressed several key points:

  • The last-minute policy change will seriously diminish the diversity and quality of indie films immediately and the mainstream film industry in the long run; by undermining their Oscar potential, riskier and edgier films will not be made;

  • Given that most piracy comes from outside the U.S. and from in-theater taping, the least likely culprits — Academy members and other insiders — are the ones most likely to suffer;

  • Specialized divisions and the actors and directors whose careers are often made by their releases will become even more vulnerable in what is already a tight marketplace; the public will be the major loser, being ultimately deprived of more artistically daring and challenging films.

Industry supporters who stand behind the IFP statement include Robert Altman, Steve Buscemi, Selma Blair, Bill Condon, Ira Deutchman, Jonathan Sehring, Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Fisher Stevens, John Waters, Ed Pressman, Ross Katz, Anthony Bregman and Tracey Ullman.

“This is such a smokescreen,” said Vachon, who produced Oscar-winner “Boys Don’t Cry” and last year’s multiple nominee “Far From Heaven.”

“It’s clear people are getting pissed that every year the independents are getting the lion’s share of the recognition. There’s not a doubt in my mind that the bigger issue here is to refocus attention on big studio movies.”

“Just like the networks are all up in arms about HBO walking away with Emmys year in and year out, it’s the same thing with the studios,” Hope added. “If someone actually wanted to do something and had a modicum of the principle of fairness, you could announce something like this and allow people to provide an alternative. But there’s no real alternative now to market and publicize your specialized films.”

Oscar history of the past 10 years is peppered with examples of specialized films on limited release that came to Oscar voters’ attention predominantly via screeners.

“I’m somebody who’s made it all the way, I’ve been able to be in the game largely because of screeners,” Vachon explained. “There are places where Academy members live where my movies don’t even get to. For some of the smaller releases, this is really elitist. It’s saying ‘If you don’t live in New York and L.A., too bad for you.’ ”

GreeneStreet’s Penotti pointed out that “In the Bedroom” would never have scored five nominations and the resulting commercial boost without the backup of Academy screeners to heighten visibility.

“The film was released around Thanksgiving in an extremely limited platform release, so while critical response was interesting, there weren’t a lot of places to see the film,” he explained.

“Up until around the middle of December we were in only two or three major territorities and for sure not in the secondary markets yet. We relied on Miramax’s diligence in getting out screeners and using that as a major tool to create internal buzz about the film.”

One of this year’s sacrificial lambs stands to be “American Splendor,” a critical favorite from HBO Films that has gone out through Fine Line and hence is subject to the no-screener rule.

“We sold ‘American Splendor’ on the promise of a great push and an Academy campaign to capitalize on our late-summer release,” said Hope, who produced the film. “Everything was in position to do that and then they change the rules at the end of our theatrical run? It’s so crazy that there’s been no discussion on this.”

“This is clearly an economic issue, beyond the fact that it’s an artistic issue,” Penotti said. “It’s hard enough in this marketplace to get people’s attention, and taking away one of our major tools for the reasons that are put forth, we just do not buy it.”

While the IFP group shares MPAA and studio concerns about piracy, the statement calls the ban on screeners an ill-advised and hasty course of action, pointing instead to other solutions.

These include watermarking and individually numbering copies to enable piracy perpetrators to be easily traced, or cracking down on the real sources of piracy in labs and duplication facilities or theaters where illegal taping occurs.

“Piracy is a serious issue and we proceed at our own peril if we don’t learn from the music industry’s experience,” said producers rep John Sloss of Cinetic Media, which was involved in the packaging of indie pics like “The Station Agent,” “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Pieces of April.”

“But I’m not at all convinced that screeners are a primary source of piracy,” he continued. “If that is the MPAA’s motivation, I’d be interested to see some connection between the dissemination of screeners and actual piracy.”

Some industryites are suggesting that producers — who are not bound to abide by MPAA rulings — should organize their own screener mailout.

However, most of the players questioned believe any such move would be severely sanctioned by the Academy and subject to thorough investigation.

Indie producers agree that the question at stake is not merely awards prestige but commercial viability, and that a narrowed Oscar field will result in decreased production of non-studio fare.

“The bottom line is, one of the reasons companies like Killer attract big talent because there’s a possibility of being able to jump into the Oscar race,” Vachon said. “If you take that away from us, for some of these movies you’re taking away their only hope of being made. I think it’s devastating.”

“If these films can no longer compete in an even playing field with the big studio releases, then they just won’t get made, they won’t get acquired and thus the great roles won’t be available to the Halle Berrys, Marcia Gay Hardens, Hilary Swanks, Billy Bob Thorntons of the world,” Hope echoed.

“And what will we end up with? We’ll just end up more mainstream.”

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