Ban fires indie ire

Studios agree to nix award season DVDs

Hollywood’s studios have agreed in principle to the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s proposal to ban the mailing of screeners of eligible films for this year’s awards season.

The decision has sparked fierce debate and opposition within the independent film community.

Specialty label execs within the studios were quick to blast the plan as particularly detrimental to the smaller pics they are responsible for.

“It’s a sad day in Mudville,” one said.

Said another indie exec: “This has been a big conspiracy to make sure that the specialty companies don’t participate in the Academy Awards. There will be no Pedro Almodovar winning best screenplay, because he won’t have a chance.”

The majors reached agreement late Monday. Sony’s vice chairman Howard Stringer was the last to sign off. MPAA chief Jack Valenti had no official statement.

Agreement has also triggered intense debate within the studios, pitting CEOs against their own production executives. High-ranking production execs, though wishing to remain anonymous, were vocal about their opposition, saying they were against such an agreement as they feared it will hurt their chances come awards season.

The high pricetags of many of 2003’s year-end releases from the studios are understood to have increased worries about piracy.

Studio honchos hashed out the particulars over the weekend after the MPAA floated a draft of the proposal last week. Intent of the ban is to combat film piracy, which has expanded with the recent advances in digital copying technology.

One awards campaigner sighed, “It’s the CEOs who are making this decision, and they’re not awards people.”

In considering the pros and cons of screeners, the CEOs had to weigh the unknowables (how many Oscar noms can be directly attributed to a screener? Answer: No one can say) vs. the knowables (How much money is lost due to piracy? Answer: Hundreds of millions).

One unanswered question is who will sign up for the screener embargo and whether the plan will extend to the true independents such as Lions Gate, Newmarket, Magnolia and ThinkFilm, which are not MPAA signatories.

Reluctant compliance

Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein has agreed to the proposal reluctantly as has non-MPAA signator DreamWorks. Many of the majors and their indie divisions also have very expensive pictures set for release at the end of the year — WB’s “The Last Samurai,” Fox’s “Master and Commander,” Sony’s “Big Fish,” Sony/ Universal/Revolution’s “Peter Pan” and Revolution’s “Mona Lisa’s Smile” as well as New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and Miramax’s “Cold Mountain.”

Adding to this concern is that pictures like Universal’s “Seabiscuit” and Pixar/Disney’s “Finding Nemo” have a potential advantage since their DVDs probably will already be in distribution.

Their decision will also affect the economics of awards campaigns. The DVD-cassette duplication-shipping vendors will be the hardest hit. The studios will save money on mailings but will have to fork out more money for screening rooms. Many of the majors firmed their campaign budgets many months ago and firmed a number of screenings at that time. Now they presumably will be scrambling to set up others — and available venues are hard to find.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has traditionally kept out of the dispute. Org has issued directives about the packaging of screeners but has never taken a direct stand on the phenomenon itself.

For years, marketing and awards execs have been split over screeners, since every film (but particularly a big-scale one) loses something on the small screen.

However, it seems clear that the smaller films, and the smaller companies, are put at a distinct disadvantage. A voting member of the Academy has limited time to attend screenings, particularly in a shortened awards season. (Oscar ballots are mailed Jan. 2.) Many agree that the studios’ big-ticket items will be on the must-see list; after that, it’s anybody’s guess how many other films will be seen.

One studio exec said this screener cease-fire was an opportunity to clean up the whole screener process, “cloaked in the name of piracy.” The exec said the screeners had made everyone complacent. “They’re a lazy way for marketing people to make sure their film is seen, and it’s a lazy way for voters to see the film.”

Missing contenders

On the other hand, one awards strategist pointed out that, in an abbreviated awards season, it’s going to be impossible to catch every contender at a screening: “This year, there’s a shorter time to see the films, and I guarantee a lot of these films are not going to be viewed.”

As a result, some studio chiefs had been faced with the dilemma of whether to issue a DVD or VHS screener to eligible voters prior to such a film’s North American theatrical bow.

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