H'w'd 'Passion' aroused over illegitimate copy

Leaders throughout Hollywood roundly condemned the New York Post for obtaining and then screening a bootlegged film for a news story.

The heads of three studios as well as producer Brian Grazer and director Sydney Pollack express deep concern about news outlets obtaining pirated copies of films and using those incomplete versions for review.

“I find this appalling and unconscionable that anyone would deal with a bootleg tape,” said Paramount Pictures chair Sherry Lansing. “I’m as outraged as if it were one of my own films because of what it portends.”

She added, “To pass judgment on any filmmaker before they’ve completed a film is going to make it impossible for us to do our work.”

Industry outrage stems from a Nov. 17 report in the Post that the paper had “obtained” a video dub of Mel Gibson’s controversial “The Passion of Christ.” The paper showed it to a rabbi, a priest, a religion professor, their own critic and a reader selected at random. A reporter interviewed the panelists and wrote up their reactions (Daily Variety, Nov. 20).

“Passion” is not due to be released until Feb. 25.

“If I had made that picture, I would have felt raped,” said Pollack. “There is obviously a great thing to defend about freedom of the press, but there is also a sense of entitlement in the press that is genuinely offensive on a moral level and every other level.”

He added, “As a director, the sense that the New York Post has the legal right to take somebody’s work that isn’t finished is really very frightening to me.”

Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook is equally upset. “I think it’s outrageous. It’s horrible. It’s a case of bad journalism, bad ethics and a broken covenant between producers of motion pictures and the press.”

Neither Peter Chernin, chief operating officer of News Corp., nor Tom Rothman, head of the Fox studio, responded to requests for comment.

In a statement to Daily Variety, a spokesman for the Post defended the paper by saying it was covering the controversy surrounding Gibson’s depiction of Jews in his film about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

“The filmmaker has already held a number of screenings for individuals, and comments from those viewers have been reported in the media. With so much controversy and attention surrounding this film, we feel this is a legitimate news story,” the spokesman said.

That explanation doesn’t wash with Grazer, who says the Post’s “Passion” package displayed “a complete lack of compassion for artists. It’s a violation almost beyond words.” He added, “Does the Post want us to think less of them? I don’t want to think less of them.”

The Post’s actions come at a time when piracy has been elevated to the top concern of the industry. By accepting and reporting from a pirated tape, some in the industry consider the Post to be complicit in piracy.

“Any act that helps in any way to legitimize an illegal act like piracy is reprehensible,” said Chris McGurk, vice chairman of MGM.

Warner Bros. CEO Barry Meyer, who proposed banning Oscar screeners in order to combat piracy, was unavailable for comment. But in a statement for the studio, Warners said, “The precedent-setting nature of this is deeply troubling on many levels.”

The Post did not say from whom it received the tape, and on Nov. 19, it returned its copy to Gibson’s reps after his lawyers asked for it back. The paper said it made no copies.

Legal action may be pending. But Elizabeth McNamara, a Gotham-based attorney at firm Davis Wright Tremaine, which represents many leading newspapers and magazines on libel and First Amendment issues, said she doubts Gibson’s production company would have much of a case against the Post.

“Reporters get handed things all the time. There’s nothing illegal and improper in obtaining and reporting on the tape,” she said. In the event of action by Icon, “I’m sure they would assert their newsgathering privileges. What they did was clearly a legitimate news story.”

People in Hollywood don’t see it the same way. Paramount vice chair Rob Friedman said, “I guess they can always hide behind the issue that it’s news but that seems a thin argument to me. It’s not as if it’s a cure for cancer or an end to world hunger.”

The New York Post is owned by News Corp., which also owns 20th Century Fox. For the last three years, it has been under the direct leadership of Lachlan Murdoch. He and Post editor Col Allan were both in Australia, unavailable for comment.

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