Nat’l crix bash the ban

Valenti considering online screener distribution

This article was corrected at 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 3, 2003.

Adding its voice to those of critics orgs that spoke out Wednesday against the MPAA’s ban on awards-season screeners, the National Society of Film Critics slammed the studio-backed edict.

“The MPAA decision to ban screeners will do little to discourage piracy but will do much to limit those films considered by the Academy to those most favored and promoted by the studios,” the statement said. “It punishes the small independent film companies who are without enough resources to set up scores of screenings and woo voters to see them.”

Established in 1967 and currently chaired by New York magazine writer Peter Rainer, the 52-member National Society of Film Critics announces its annual awards in early January.

Like other national critics associations, the org relies to a degree on screeners to recap releases from early in the year and to catch some foreign-language films, documentaries, experimental and independent titles not in wide release. Screeners are particularly important to critics not based in major centers like New York and Los Angeles.

“All the responses I’ve got from my members on this issue just keep hammering over and over again the idea that this is a blatant and arrogant swipe at the independent film realm when it comes to winning awards,” Rainer told Daily Variety.

The group’s statement follows a formal protest issued Tuesday by the Online Film Critics Society and unofficial comments opposing or questioning the ban from the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

Meanwhile, sources indicated Thursday that MPAA chief Jack Valenti is considering online firms which would allow the viewing of screeners on computers. The interest is theoretical at this point; none of the firms capable of such delivery has been contacted by the MPAA.

An MPAA spokesperson also stated that such a move would have to be initiated directly by each of the major studios.

Curt Marvis, CEO of CinemaNow, which with the studio-backed MovieLink is among thel leaders in the field, said that his firm had approached the studios to offer a piracy-safe alternative to the mailing of screeners.

“We see our delivery methods as being a secure alternative,” Marvis said. “The studios must believe we’re secure as well because they let us show their movies in that fashion. It’s a question whether the MPAA would want it and whether the studios would want it.”

The services offer users the chance to download and watch movies on their computers for up to 24 hours. After that, the film cannot be accessed unless another license is purchased. Oscar voters could be given a password to access encrypted films.

Formal statement

Meanwhile Thursday, discussion among the heads of indie producers and the studios’ niche units continued to work on formulating a response to the screener ban.

Following the protest statement issued Wednesday by the independent film community, coordinated by IFP/New York exec director Michelle Byrd, the list of signatories opposing the MPAA ban continues to grow, uniting industryites from all branches of the sector.

Additional names joining the chorus of disapproval include directors Darren Aronofsky, Jim Fall, Todd Field, Tamara Jenkins and Richard Kelly, thesps Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Rick Schroder and Sissy Spacek, agents Kevin Iwashina, John Lesher, Peter Levine, Stephanie Ritz, David Schiff and Jason Tuchinsky, managers Adam Shulman and Julie Yorn, and distribs including Artisan Entertainment topper Amir Malin and Strand Releasing co-president Marcus Hu.

Producers who have added their names to those protesting the screener veto include Josh Astrachan, David Brown, Scott Macaulay, Lydia Pilcher, Mary Jane Skalski, Jeremy Thomas, Lisa Tornell, Eric Watson and Eden Wurmfeld.

Five-films the key?

Finally, several sources claimed Thursday that the ban is entirely about protecting five movies — “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Master and Commander,” “The Alamo,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Last Samurai.” These are the ones that would be vulnerable to piracy if DVDs went out, and the screener ban now means they are protected from that threat.

According to these sources, the studios could simply have unilaterally decided not to send those five movies out, but instead they conspired for a blanket ban that will only hurt the indies.

(Marc Graser and Adam Dawtrey in London contributed to this report.)

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