Org cites 'unfairness and inequities' of ban

This article updated at 9:32 p.m.

NEW YORK — Adopting a stance similar to that of its L.A. counterpart, the Chicago Film Critics Assn. has opted to suspend its annual awards for 2003 in protest of the MPAA’s restrictions on the distribution of screeners.

“The CFCA, disturbed by the unfairness and inequities caused by the current MPAA screener ban — and also by the fact that many affected film companies and divisions were denied a true voice in the matter — will suspend its competitive awards for 2003,” said the group in a statement.

“This suspension will be in force until the MPAA allows all companies and/or subsidiaries affected to vote for themselves, or until it releases all those who disagree with the ban from forced participation, or until the companies and individual filmmakers who are opposed to that ban break it on their own.”

While no other film critics groups have indicated an intention to cancel their awards, a delegation of film critics headed by Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. president Jean Oppenheimer is scheduled to meet with Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy-CEO Jack Valenti this afternoon to continue talks on the ban. Also participating will be National Society of Film Critics chairman Peter Rainer, who doubles as an LAFCA member. Other writers belonging to both those orgs will take part in the talks, some of whom are members of the New York Film Critics Circle.

Oppenheimer said there has been no change in the LAFCA’s decision to cancel its kudos this year.

Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. president Lorenzo Soria also is scheduled to meet with Valenti today in an effort to shift the MPAA’s position on members of that org receiving screeners in order to have access to the entire field of eligible films for Golden Globes consideration.

The CFCA’s decision came after a board meeting during which it was acknowledged that a compromise solution allowing VHS screeners to be sent to Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members was a step in the right direction, but failed to solve key issues.

The org feels that by changing the rules so late in the game, the MPAA move still destabilizes the playing field, placing at a disadvantage smaller companies that rely most on screeners for visibility and promotion. The CFCA also takes issue with the ban for unfairly stigmatizing critics and craft guilds as being part of the piracy problem.

“We believe that any film company has the right to withhold screeners of its work if it truly fears duplication and illegal resale,” said the CFCA statement. “But we also believe no company that wishes to distribute its own screeners for purposes of prize contests or media coverage should be denied that right, whether by a parent studio or by a professional organization.”

The 48-member CFCA is headed by Chicago Daily Herald critic Dann Gire and includes Roger Ebert, Richard Roeper and Michael Wilmington.

“One of the key reasons we waited on this is that by coming out real quick after the L.A. boycott, it looked like a me-too pileup situation,” Gire told Daily Variety. “We gave ourselves a couple of weeks to think about what our message was.

“We have our own specific reasons why this makes sense for us,” he added. “We want to make sure the MPAA and Hollywood understand that what they are doing is just not right.”

Gire points out that CFCA members like Chicago Tribune critic John Petrakis are being particularly penalized by not knowing in advance about the no-screener ruling. Given that Petrakis’ beat is the indie releases that rarely make it to multiplexes, the reviewer is now stymied in being able to see the entire pool of potential award candidates.

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