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Indie org wants to bomb the ban

AFMA implores Valenti to rethink decision

The American Film Marketing Assn. became the latest organization to urge Jack Valenti and the MPAA to rescind its ban on Oscar DVDs.

“We strongly object to the MPAA’s unilateral edict to ban the use of screeners in connection with Academy Award consideration,” said AFMA prexy-CEO Jean Prewitt on behalf of the org’s members.

“This decision has devastating economic consequences for independent film companies. We urge that the decision be reconsidered immediately and that the independents be included in any future deliberations.”

AFMA’s membership includes the U.S. studio-affiliated independents and more than 100 other companies in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In the letter the AFMA goes on to state that while the org has worked with the MPAA over its 25-year history to combat piracy, “The anti-piracy label given to the major studios’ recent decision does not justify the unilateral actions that have been taken. There are serious disparities between how this decision affects the studios and how it will affect the independents whose films are handled by the studios.”

O’seas frustration

Prewitt said discussions have taken place with overseas members who are mostly confused about how the ban will affect them.

“The first batch of phone calls from overseas people were expressing a lot of confusion,” said Prewitt. “Without having seen a written statement of policy from the studios and having not spoken to them, members did not understand how the ban applies.”

The overseas reaction related uniquely to films that may be considered for the foreign-language film Oscar. “These companies in particular were extremely concerned because that’s product that is almost never seen in the U.S. prior to nominations, and without screeners, it’s totally unclear how to attract people to those screenings and what would the level of voting from the U.S. be given that access to the pictures would be so limited,” the AFMA said.

Contract limits

Foreign distributors, according to Prewitt, were also busily studying contracts to clarify whether a studio with domestic rights can control what goes on in other territories and where the contractual rights lie with regard to awards ceremonies in those respective territories.

“We find it extraordinary that there was no dialogue with the independents prior to this announcement … AFMA believes that this decision must be rescinded,” the org declared.

Meanwhile, more filmmakers and producers have added their names to IFP/NY’s statement of protest which now has over 150 adherents from various parts of the industry, many of them potential Oscar nominees for this year’s awards season

These include “Pieces of April” producer Alexis Alexanian and writer-director Peter Hedges, “Thirteen” director Catherine Hardwicke, “American Splendor” producer Ted Hope, “Lost in Translation” producer Ross Katz, “The Cooler” director Wayne Kramer, “Hulk” director Ang Lee, “Le Divorce” producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, “In the Cut” producer Laurie Parker, “Northfork” co-directors Mark and Michael Polish, “Shattered Glass” actor Peter Sarsgaard, “The Station Agent” producer Mary Jane Skalski.

Advantage to indies

In spite of the indie community’s vocal opposition to the ban, many insiders believe that non-MPAA bound companies could ultimately benefit by not having to adhere to the ban and that changes may be seen in the distribution of indie films.

Many also raised the possibility that the ban could impact sales at Sundance Film Festival next year and encourage producers and sales agents to look for deals with non-MPAA ruled distribs that are free to mount Academy campaigns using screeners.

Films bought at Sundance this year that could now struggle for visibility with the screener ban include Miramax’s “The Station Agent,” Fox Searchlight’s “Thirteen,” United Artists’ “Pieces of April” and Fine Line/HBO Films’ “American Splendor,” to name a few.

Voting abstinence?

A growing number of Academy members have also contacted Daily Variety independently to express their opposition to the MPAA ban. Some are suggesting that a total abstinence from voting or voting only for non-studio movies is the best course of action.

Meanwhile, others oppose the ban over geographical issues. Dennis Weaver, former two-year president of the Screen Actors Guild who resides in Ridgway, Colo., said: “No way those of us who reside away from large cities can vote fairly on the pictures considered for Oscars if the ‘screeners’ aren’t available to us. Many potential nominees are not exhibited in our areas.”

However, others feel this would create an uneven playing field and create animosity and unfair advantage between the specialty divisions and their direct competitors with other indie distributors.

Tom Rothman, co-chairman of 20th Century Fox who also worked for the Samuel Goldwyn Company and founded Fox Searchlight, said he believed the MPAA ban will actually help “pure independents, who, if they believe screeners are worht the risk to their copyrights, can proceed as they wish.” (See related column in Perspectives, page 19).

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