Ban triggers niche bitch

Indies in an uproar, say their Oscar chances in jeopardy

An ugly storm cloud has gathered over the indie film biz after the Hollywood studio CEOs’ decision Monday to ban Oscar screeners.

Rumors were even rampant Tuesday that Miramax might not adhere to the ban, but that wishful thinking on the part of the indie brigade was quickly squelched.

“I will go along with this ban if it is for the reason of combating piracy,” Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein told Daily Variety late Tuesday. “Disney has assured me that is the purpose.”

Most other specialty niche labels within the studios were, however, still livid Tuesday about the arrangement, which several said was sprung on them at the last minute and would seriously jeopardize their Oscar chances.

United Artists head Bingham Ray has organized a meeting today in New York for the independent film companies to discuss the decision.

Opponents of the ban say screener cassettes and DVDs generally help level the playing field between high-profile studio pics and smaller niche movies, which have less money to spend to hype their pics.

One studio chieftain wondered aloud whether a pic like “The Pianist” could have pulled any noms had it not been for screeners.

Duncan Kenworthy, an Oscar-nominated producer for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” stressed the commercial and creative ramifications of the ban.

“If it means that people whose reputations aren’t yet built are disadvantaged in relation to those whose reputations are already well established, that would be a tragedy. If it means that it would be harder for independent films to break through to the mainstream, that would be a tragedy. I can’t see that the possibility there might be less piracy will outweigh the losses to the industry as a whole.”

The MPAA ban on screeners means, for example, that Fine Line can forget about mailing out “American Splendor” or “Elephant”; Focus Features has to forgo mailings of “Lost in Translation” and “Swimming Pool’; Sony Pictures Classics can forget “The Fog of War” and “The Triplets of Belleville”; and Miramax will have to seek other avenues to boost the profile of “Dirty Pretty Things” and “The Magdalene Sisters.”

Oscar-winning pics like “Monster’s Ball,” “Affliction,” “Pollock,” “The Cider House Rules,” “Talk to Her” and “Gods and Monsters” would almost certainly have had more trouble mustering their nominations without the added visibility and voter awareness fostered by screeners.

“The smaller companies and the smaller films, regardless of who is distributing them, are going to suffer,” said ThinkFilm distribution topper Mark Urman. “They simply will not be seen and very worthy achievements in all sorts of categories are going to miss out on recognition.”

The plan, which was implemented to prevent piracy of the studios’ fall releases, could benefit truly indie distributors like Lions Gate, Newmarket or IFC, which have no corporate links to MPAA studios and are thus not bound by the ban.

“If implemented the way it’s being discussed, it will be one of the greatest boons to some of the more freelance companies,” said James Schamus, co-president of Focus Features, U’s specialty banner.

As it stands, specialty distribs not controlled by the Hollywood majors remain at liberty to mail out screeners of eligible films.

Thus Lions Gate can supply Academy voters with copies of “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” Newmarket can send out “Whale Rider” and Magnolia can deliver “Capturing the Friedmans.” But even the true indie players had mixed feelings about the MPAA-sponsored move. Some even believe that they too could be pressured into forgoing their Oscar screeners.

In addition, these indie distribs are bracing themselves for pressure from their heavyweight competitors, who will have practically monopolized the available screening rooms.

“This makes it even a more uphill battle for independents,” Newmarket president Bob Berney said. “We’re already at a disadvantage and this just makes it worse. In places like New York and London, it’s not only the expense of screening rooms but literally being able to get them. I’m sure the majors have already booked everything in advance. It creates yet another hurdle we have to go through.”

Berney’s challenge, without the backup of screeners and with a shortage of screening venues, will be to figure a way to keep “Whale Rider” in theaters through the voting period, particularly in key cities like New York, San Francisco and London.

“I’m scrambling for screening rooms and to make deals with exhibitors to keep it visible; even if it’s played out to still have it playing,” Berney added.

Other indies pointed to more negative repercussions.

“It’s not like the Academy is this art-savvy audience,” suggested Eamon Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures. “If the film’s not in wide release and not at their neighborhood corner theater, a large share of Academy members are not going to have access to it. That means they have to go and actively seek these films out.”

Though BAFTA, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts had no official position on the decision, many members hoped the MPAA would allow screeners given the problem of British release dates lagging behind those in the U.S.

While the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s president Lorenzo Soria supported the major studios and indie producers in their battle against piracy, he added: “While seeing movies on the bigscreen is always our members’ preference, screeners in VHS and/or DVD form always have been helpful in viewing and selecting movies for Golden Globe consideration. Discontinuing screeners for HFPA members would make our jobs far more difficult.

“The HFPA requests that studios and indie producers continue sending our members screeners, either on VHS or on DVD format. Our association welcomes encoding of screeners to make possible the tracking of any possible act of piracy, a practice we condemn.”

Across the board, indie players are also skeptical about the MPAA’s claim that piracy is the main concern here.

“This was presented to many of the independent companies as being about piracy, and who doesn’t want to fight piracy?” said a senior specialty company exec who has long been a key Oscar-campaign strategist.

“However, it’s not clear that the MPAA has made a real case or presented facts linking this issue to piracy in any major way, and that needs some looking into.”

“I guess the homevideo companies will be very busy next year trying to time their video releases to coincide with the Oscar voting period to avoid the pirates and be able to then send their tapes out without the fear of duplication,” said Tom Bernard, co-prexy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Others questioned what the penalty for not adhering to the ban would be and how it would affect film critics having to then go to every screening to see eligible films in order to vote for the critics awards.

More than one observer sees the ban not so much as an initiative to thwart piracy, but as a concerted effort on the part of the Hollywood studios to shift Oscar attention back to their films after years of being shut out by upstart indies.

“Ultimately, this just centralizes and consolidates the industry-town nature of the Oscars and puts us squarely back in the area of favoring the studios for the Oscars,” Bowles suggested. “I don’t know if I’m cynical enough to say that’s the main reason this is being done, but it certainly will be a by-product of it that I’m sure people are aware of.”

(Adam Dawtrey in London contributed to this report.)

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