The last picture show?

Rebels battle to overturn ban on Oscar screeners

Let us briefly review what Jack Valenti and the Hollywood studio CEOs have accomplished in banning Oscar screeners:

  • They’ve triggered a rebellion within companies on the part of those execs and producers who want to foster specialty films;

  • They’ve enraged those Academy members who look upon screeners as the principal reason they pay their $250 a year in membership dues;

  • They’ve exponentially reduced the chances of long shots like “In the Bedroom” or “The Pianist” from earning valuable Oscar noms.

And, oh yes, they’ve put a crimp in piracy — or have they?

Pricey mainstream spectacles like Fox’s “Master and Commander” and New Line’s “Lord of the Rings” are obvious targets for pirates, but they are not nearly as dependent on screeners as smaller pics.

“In America” and “American Splendor,” released by specialty arms of Fox and New Line, may now be marginalized while their megabudget brethren take up more awards-season real estate.

Aside from those fairness considerations, the technology that both enables and prevents piracy is evolving rapidly.

Many embroiled in the debate over screeners wonder why a tech solution cannot be found.

Do the corporate chiefs truly believe that, by not dispatching an initial shipment of 90 DVDs of “The Last Samurai” to the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., for example, they will prevent millions of fake DVDs from appearing around the world day-and-date with the December release?

The MPAA’s Valenti insists they will.

He and the seven studio heads unveiled the plan last week to ban screeners of potential Oscar contenders from being sent out to the 6,000 Academy voters this fall as well as to a growing coterie of kudo groups. Screeners enable voters to see smaller, more obsure films on tape or DVD rather than in moviehouses.

Of course, the entire film community understands the cost of piracy. The sad state of the music industry demonstrates what the combination of bad product and zealous downloaders can accomplish.

But is the ban on screeners the appropriate response? Will its negatives outweigh its positive effects?

Talk to members of the indie film community and you hear a resounding “no” to these questions.

“They’re approaching a very real problem in a very strange way,” said Endeavor partner John Lesher, whose client roster includes Paul Thomas Anderson, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, David O. Russell and Martin Scorsese.

“This will have long-term effects on the independent film community. The people who have made this rule are in the Dark Ages. These days people prefer to watch films at home, they have home entertainment systems superior to many cinemas. The specialty label live by awards. It’s the little bit extra that they get from a nomination that makes their business pay,” adds producer Jeremy Thomas, who won an Oscar for ‘The Last Emperor.”

It’s a remarkable coincidence, they point out, that the ban occurs at the very time that the Hollywood majors are marshaling an unusually high number of big-budget, year-end releases — some of which might steal Oscars from their more modest rivals.

There’s “Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise, “The Missing,” directed by Ron Howard, a new version of “Peter Pan” and “Mona Lisa Smile” starring Julia Roberts.

That list leaves out big-budget contenders from earlier this year, like “Seabiscuit” and “Finding Nemo,” whose DVDs probably will be in the commercial marketplace by Oscar time.

“The studios are trying to send a message to Washington, but it’s not thought through,” fumes one chief of a specialty film division. “Valenti said the MPAA has been talking about it for months, so why tell us literally two weeks before the DVDs go out?”

One of the main reasons for the angst is the fact that far more than the voting members of the Academy receive screeners.

Oscar mailing campaigns can range anywhere from 10,000 videos and DVDs for a niche title to as many as 40,000 for a high-profile hopeful. Wallet-watching indies tend to stick to the lower numbers, while the high range belongs to studios that go full bore.

Of these, however, only about 6,000 copies go directly to Academy members. The rest are sent to various critics’ orgs as well as professional guilds — in short, any group that might have a voice in giving prizes to the distributors’ films.

Despite facing one of the biggest tidal waves of opposition during his 35-yearestimable tenure, Valenti has not backed down. In fact, days after the news of the ban broke, he faxed a clarifying memo to the studios.

“It has been reported that some studio subsidiaries believe it is OK to send out screeners if the film has been released in homevideo form. This is incorrect. The policy is: No screeners of any kind are allowed to be sent out. Once an exception is made, the barn door is wide open.”

A minority in the film biz who support him point out that screeners are a relatively recent innovation. Small films like 1986’s “Blue Velvet” still earned director David Lynch his first Oscar nom, while the 1985 “Kiss of the Spider Woman” took four noms, including a best actor win for William Hurt.

However, Lesher points out that today’s edgier films face the uphill battles of an aging Academy and a surfeit of product. They also may face more cantankerous auds, thanks to the Acad’s teetotaling ban on drinks and hors d’oeuvres at screenings.

There is an inescapable market condition spotlighted by the screener flap: The days of specialized films being able to build an audience over weeks, much less months, are long gone.

“There’s a purist part of me that thinks the movies should be watched on screen, but I’m skeptical,” Lesher says. “Everyone knows it’s not good for films that require special care and aren’t on 3,000 screens.”

And for those filmmakers, there’s little comfort in knowing that the ban could help fight piracy. After all, bootleggers are a lot more likely to be interested in “The Hulk” than in “Magdalene Sisters.”

“If someone in China buys a bootleg copy of ’21 Grams,’ great,” Lesher said. “Maybe it will inspire them to make a movie when they grow up.”

Though several high-profile screening rooms were contacted in L.A., none had yet seen any panic or received a high volume of calls looking for screening space.

Nevertheless, most of the larger rooms of 100 seats or more have been block-booked by the majors (at around $3,000 a night) since last March. Even before the screener brouhaha, there had been worries about the proliferation of awards and a shorter runup to the Oscars.

Some said that they had seen more business due to the closure of Todd-AO’s L.A. screening room and that many companies were also adding screenings during the day to try to get around the booking problem.

“All the screening rooms are booked out already,” observes one veteran Oscar strategist. “We will have to do screenings at ridiculous times of the day. People aren’t going to come in at 10 in the morning.”

An Academy voter in London wonders: “What about voters who don’t live in London? If Stanley Kubrick were alive, do you think he’d be driving into town for screenings?”

Given the premium on private screening space, attention has already turned to commercial moviehouses.

Theater operators in Gotham and L.A. are decrying the ban because it will mean Academy and guild members flashing their cards to get into theaters free. (Most houses also comp members’ guests.)

Both the distrib and exhib forfeit revenue when passes are used, though theaters at least have potential popcorn sales to cushion the blow.

Some theater operators say lost revenue could total 30% of the total during the crucial holiday season.

“NATO and its members support the MPAA’s efforts to fight piracy,” says John Fithian, prexy of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners.

“But we are concerned that the no-screeners policy will drive tens of thousands of guild and Academy members to our theaters for free admissions to movies.”

Exhibs had already been concerned about the passes; last year some chafed at the practice of honoring them. There had already been a sentiment at NATO that the policy would need to be clarified to quell the dissatisfaction.

(This story was reported by Adam Dawtrey, Carl DiOrio, Cathy Dunkley, Steven Gaydos, Dana Harris, Pamela McClintock and David Rooney and was written by Dade Hayes.)

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