Guild members, press excluded under new deal

The studios and the MPAA are ready to give the greenlight to screeners, but only for Academy members.

An announcement is expected this week regarding a compromise solution that would allow all studios to send out screeners, enabling all films to compete on a level playing field.

Over the weekend, Motion Picture Assn. of America president Jack Valenti is understood to have gone back and forth with studio chiefs to hammer out a compromise. Though no details were official, MPAA signatory companies have agreed to send out VHS screeners with some form of special encryption or security coding to Acad members. A number of groups that have in the past received the screeners — the directors, writers and screen actors guilds and members of the press — would not receive the tapes. The MPAA began the process of notifying those organizations Monday.

The Acad-only plan will put the films in the hands of Oscar voters while sharply reducing the volume of screeners, which the MPAA sees as an important front in its ongoing war against piracy.

One senior source at a leading specialty division said Valenti was very much on the side of the creative community in the push to find a peaceful solution. Studio heads at Paramount, Universal and Sony also came around to the idea of compromise, while brass at Warner and Fox — widely credited as the principal architects behind the unpopular decision — were said to be harder to budge.

Acad in talks

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is also involved in the talks. Org and its toppers are at the center of the controversy, which is not of their making: Original ban plan was concocted by the MPAA and the studio toppers, without Academy input, but it very much affects the Acad and its voters.

Despite talk of a truce, the indie community remains poised for further assault if the ban stays in place. One source said up to 10 antitrust lawsuits could be filed against the studios and the MPAA if the ban is not lifted.

“There have been a lot of conversations with attorneys to look into the feasibility of lawsuits,” said producer Ted Hope, who has been a frontline activist in the ban-the-ban campaign. “I’ve certainly consulted more than one attorney to find out what my recourse would be, and that’s been in conjunction with other producers.”

Hope and others agreed, however, that the rumored solution would meet with general approval.

‘Incredible heartening’

“I find it incredibly heartening that people got behind this in such a rapid fashion and that the voices were heard,” said Hope. “The main thing now is that time is of the essence.”

This past weekend, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. said it would cancel its annual awards unless the screener ban is rescinded (Daily Variety, Oct. 20). In the wake of that decision, the New York Film Critics Circle has been mulling a course of action. A rep said that group is expected to make an announcement in the next day or two but is waiting to see how the dust settles on the latest studio-MPAA talks.

Penalties discussed

Critical to the compromise is that all films regardless of their scale be treated the same. That effectively means the rejection of the proposal to limit screeners to films with a release of 800 or fewer prints.

“It would be equally discriminating if the right to send out screeners was in any way confined to limited releases; that would be a big political mistake for everyone,” said Hope.

The Acad had no comment on its role in the discussions. Though screeners have been around for more than a decade, the org has generally maintained a closed-mouth policy on screeners, which are sent out by the studios. Org has always stated that a film is best seen on the bigscreen, but even in its recent crackdown on awards campaigns, the Acad never mentioned screeners. Its only stated concern has been that the screeners conform to Acad standards (e.g., no elaborate packaging, no extra features on DVDs, etc.)

One source said that talks with the Academy have discussed possible penalties if a screener is pirated.

Representatives from the MPAA declined to comment on a possible compromise.

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