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Feisty filmmakers

Helmers' open letter decries MPAA ban

NEW YORK — A powerhouse list of filmmakers, embracing Hollywood heavyweights, indie veterans, cutting-edge new talents and some of the most commercially and critically successful directors from Britain and Europe has joined the wave of opposition to the MPAA screener ban with an open letter today in Daily Variety.

“Many great films, and in particular films that take risks, rely on critical acclaim and, when the film is fortunate enough, Academy consideration to reach a broad audience,” says the letter. “The MPAA decision to ban screeners irreparably damages the chances of such films: films that already have a difficult enough time finding financing and distribution.

“As creative artists, we stand up for these films and oppose the MPAA’s creation of an unwarranted obstacle to their reaching the audience they deserve — and of course require, in order to exist.”

The protest missive bears 142 names from a broad cross-section of Hollywood, indiedom and international directing luminaries. Signatories include Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Barry Levinson, Nora Ephron, Jodie Foster, David Mamet, Sam Raimi, James Ivory, Doug Liman, Lasse Hallstrom, Ang Lee and Jonathan Demme.

Frosh contingent

The new guard of edgy young filmmakers also is amply represented, with Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Kimberly Peirce, Robert Rodriguez, Terry Zwigoff, Darren Aronofsky, Richard Linklater, Miguel Arteta, Steven Shainberg, Michel Gondry and David Gordon Green.

Joshua Astrachan, a producer at Robert Altman’s Sandcastle 5 Prods., was one of several key expediters behind the letter, assembling names through a vast local and international network over the past few days and quickly building a grass-roots swell of support.

Maverick helmers that signed on include Joel Coen, Arthur Penn, David Lynch, Monte Hellman, Jim Jarmusch, Paul Schrader, Errol Morris, John Waters and David Cronenberg.

Brit filmmakers on the list include Mike Leigh, Mike Figgis, Sally Potter, Stephen Frears, Jeremy Thomas, Michael Winterbottom, Terry Gilliam, Mike Newell, Iain Softley, Peter Cattaneo and Jonathan Glazer. International names include Bernardo Bertolucci, Pedro Almodovar, Walter Salles, Tom Tykwer, Thomas Vinterberg, Mira Nair, Guillermo del Toro and Atom Egoyan.

Matter of honor

“It has been said that we in the film industry are honor-bound to go along with this ban,” says the directors’ letter. “We believe that as filmmakers, we are honor-bound to oppose it.”

While several directors approached expressed qualms that their adherence to the protest might appear to be a purely self-serving measure, several filmmakers whose specialty releases risk being overlooked this year due to the screener ban have added their names.

These include Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (“American Splendor”), Lisa Cholodenko (“Laurel Canyon”), Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”), Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen”), Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April”), Norman Jewison (“The Statement”), Jim Sheridan (“In America”), Wayne Kramer (“The Cooler”), Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”) and Mark and Michael Polish (“Northfork”).

“If the major studios don’t want to send out tapes, fine, but they shouldn’t penalize other people,” said director Jewison, who served on the Academy board for nine years. “(MPAA prexy-CEO Jack) Valenti represents seven major studios and 80% of the films that are seen in the world. These are multinational, global companies and essentially, they have to look out for themselves. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stand up to them.

“I made a film called ‘Rollerball’ almost 30 years ago about the corporate structure taking over,” Jewison added. “And I think that the marketing forces dominate the thinking at most major studios. It’s certainly not the creative production people. I think what you’re seeing is reaction against that overwhelming domination and maybe that’s what’s pulling the directors together.”

Conflicting interests

While there are a number of notable absences among the directors’ names, organizers of the list insist that many key filmmakers were simply shooting or traveling and unable to be reached. However, the near-total absence of helmers with deals in place at Warner or Fox — generally believed to be the principal architects behind the screener ban — or shooting features for those studios seems significant.

Exceptions are Redford, whose Wildwood banner is based at Warner, and Forest Whitaker, whose Spirit Dance company is set up at Fox.

Many insiders active in opposing the screener ban are questioning Steven Soderbergh’s lack of involvement given that the director has a reputation for being vocal on industry issues and that, as a specialty release, “Traffic” doubtless was helped in its Oscar campaign by screeners. However, while Soderbergh — whose Section 8 banner is Warner-based — is known to have been contacted repeatedly to sign on to the directors’ statement, the indie veteran did not respond. Daily Variety‘s calls to Soderbergh’s reps were not returned.

The request from the directors group to repeal the screener decision comes on the heels of a more detailed letter to Motion Picture Assn. of America topper Valenti from the specialty distribution units, signing themselves the Independent Working Group, to protect individuals likely to feel the sting of studio repercussion.

That Oct. 2 letter was followed Wednesday by a conference call between Valenti and the heads of Focus Features, Miramax and Sony Pictures Classics. Contrary to previous indications, United Artists did not participate.

The specialty distribs came away feeling the discussions had been productive and are hopeful that Valenti will lobby with the studios to find a middle ground involving the mailing of screeners on VHS only. However, a subsequent MPAA statement issued Thursday indicated that the org’s blanket-ban stance remains firm.

‘Policy remains’

“Jack Valenti has had conversations with individuals and several groups on the subject of the new screener policy,” the MPAA statement said. “He welcomes the exchange of thoughts and ideas on the critical issue of combating piracy. That said, the screener policy remains as it was originally announced.”

Meanwhile, another major issue looming is that of antitrust. Does the ban on screeners have restraint of trade implications for the independents? Many of the antitrust attorneys Daily Variety contacted could not comment due to client confidentiality.

However, Keith Shugarman, partner in charge of the antitrust group at Washington, D.C.-based firm Goodwin Procter said: “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 decision.”

(Cathy Dunkley in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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