The compromise: Why we did it

Guest column

Never in the history of the noble English language has the word “screener” been used more often, with such passionate advocacy and with opposing views about it clashing in print, phone, fax, email, letter, semaphore signaling. The only communication missing were some Navajo Windtalkers.

It is something less than cheerful after 30 years plus in the movie industry to be cast as a callous villain, an antagonist who turns his back on creative filmmakers. I admit that hurt. Every now and then during the past few weeks, I took out my Directors Guild membership card to look at it lovingly. It continues to give me comfort.

Let me then tell you “the why, when and what” of this confusing collision between friends and colleagues.

Some time ago the MPAA anti-piracy department reported that of the 68 titles sent out last year (a total of 700,000 screeners), some 34 were pirated and traced by the Anti-Piracy professionals to screeners. Most of these pirated screeners wound up in Asia and Russia stamped onto counterfeit DVDs and flung around the world.

This was observable, identifiable piracy. Here, let me state for all to read: First, this is a small piece of global piracy, but it could be overlooked. Second, I believe not one recipient of screeners had any personal connection with piracy. Of course not.

But we all, including me, give some screeners to relatives and friends, who in turn give to friends, who in turn give to friends, and from this daisy chain pirates pounced on them.

The top technical people in the companies and MPAA examined all alternatives, such as online delivery or putting sturdy protective anti-piracy armor plates around DVDs. None worked.

Maybe next year the technology will be available, but not now.

So, I am now presented with a dilemma. Do we let the piracy continue untended by any MPAA rebuttal or do we ban all screeners? I recommend the latter course.

The firestorm that we expected came in rolling continuing waves of frustration, lamentations and anger. This was not a benevolent experience for me or the companies.

But the shock wave that personally hit me like a twanging electric wire was an ad in the trades signed by some of the most famous creative artists in the film world. Most of them were friends I admired greatly. I felt the blow.

Was there a “middle ground,” I thought? Confronting me were the two extremes: continue to ban all screeners – or send them out in the hundreds of thousands, prey to piracy. Both were melancholy choices.

Then, an appearance of a “deus ex machina.”

Frank Pierson, president of the Academy, called me. He had an idea. We worked on it together. When we were done, I believed we had indeed designed a “middle ground.” I knew that this would not please everyone. But it was a sensible alternative to sending out tons of screeners, ripe for thievery, not by those who received them, but by others.

Why the Academy? Because the Academy is the only organization anywhere under whose canopy reside members who cut across the entire panoply of moviedom: not merely directors, writers, actors, producers, but set designers, composers, editors, below-the-line craftsmen, etc.

Pierson also agreed to stringent rules of the game. He would send out a document to all Academy members. If they sent back the document with their signature on it, they would be: (1) authorizing the Academy to send their name and address to the studios; (2) pledging they would not allow any screeners to leave their home; (3) aware that the studios were reserving the right to identify/watermark screeners; (4) confirming that they understood if a pirated screener was traced back to a screener sent to that member, he or she would be expelled from the Academy.

That is a severe penalty.

We also knew that if we went beyond the Academy, sending screeners to another organization, the whole plan collapses. To send to another group, you must send to all groups. Which was not acceptable, given the known piracy experience last year.

This was the plan that the member companies, after examining in detail and debating at length, but always with the issue of piracy as the central theme of our conference calls, unanimously approved.

This decision applies equally to all the subsidiary companies of the studios. Moreover, the studios will expand and make available special screenings for films, large and small, in New York and Los Angeles. It is a one-year experiment whose results will govern next year’s decision.

Every person who works in any aspect of the movie industry (there are some 900,000 of you), must understand that we cannot live in the digital world of zeros and ones as we have lived in the analog world. Anyone who believes differently is worshipping a defunct mythology.

The digital world of perfect copies is upon us. The analog world is a giant reliquary.

That is why if we allow ourselves to think of only ourselves, and not elevate piracy to the highest rostrum, so that we can find technological and other ways to baffle it, we will all bear witness to the slow undoing of the American film industry.

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