Courtroom stunner roils Oscar campaigns

The lastest twist in this most contentious and confusing Oscar season — Friday’s stunning court decision that struck down the ban on “screeners” — has sent the studios scrambling.

Some, like indie units Focus Features and Miramax, have put the mailings on fast forward. Majors Warners and Disney, meanwhile, say they will adhere to the terms of the ban despite the judge’s ruling. The rest of the studios and their speciality units spent the weekend trying to devise new strategies for their kudos campaigns.

District Court Judge Michael Mukasey imposed a preliminary injunction on the MPAA’s screener ban, ruling that the indies had successfully demonstrated that the restrictions imposed on the distribution of awards screeners constitutes a clear restraint of trade and an anti-competitive practice, which violates antitrust laws.

Ruling effectively opens the floodgates for screeners to go out and provides a judicial guarantee that there can be no MPAA repercussions against studio specialty divisions or independents. The indie labels owned by the major studios — outfits like Universal’s Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics and Disney’s Miramax — can now send out screeners to all relevant organizations and critics groups for awards consideration.

Some of those companies indicated Friday they will proceed immediately to send out screeners to all craft groups and critics orgs; others, like MGM-controlled United Artists, said they were still discussing how to proceed.

Focus Features sent out screeners to the Hollywood Foreign Press Friday, and Miramax will do the same today. Both are requiring a signed form from the recipients, which they HFPA will adminstrate. Miramax will today be sending out VHS copies of “Station Agent,” “Dirty Pretty Things,” The Magdalena Sisters,” “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” “The Human Stain” and, at a later date, “Cold Mountain.”

HBO Films/Fine Line Features will begin with existing copies of “American Splendor,” increasing the volume as more are manufactured. Distrib said the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. would be its first priority given that the Dec. 15 voting deadline for the Golden Globes is looming.

“We certainly feel we can now send out to the guilds and critics groups, and we’re evaluating what we’re going to send,” said Sony Classics co-president Tom Bernard.

Warner and Disney indicated they would adhere to the terms of the ban and would send out only VHS copies to Academy members.

Disney is expected to mail out copies of “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Open Range.”

Sony is expected to send out copies of “The Missing,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Big Fish” and “Mona Lisa Smile.”

Paramount and Fox said they had not made a decision whether to send out screeners nor which titles if any.

In his ruling, Mukasey said the studio ban puts independents — whose films are often distributed by the majors — at a distinct disadvantage during awards season, with potentially damaging long-term impact on future revenue streams.

The coalition that brought the suit was comprised of 15 indie production companies, along with the Independent Feature Project (IFP)/Los Angeles and IFP/New York. Latter orgs and their exec directors, respectively Dawn Hudson and Michelle Byrd, have emerged during the screener battle as a powerful voice in bringing together and lobbying for the independent film community.

“Today is a great day for independent film and the movie industry,” said Gregory Curtner of Miller Canfield, principal attorney for the indie coalition. “The plaintiffs are enormously gratified that the court enjoined the MPAA conspiracy to restrain a legitimate form of competition and enforced the fundamental law of the United States, embodied in the Sherman Act, in favor of free and open competition.”

The other key players in the fight have been indie producers Ted Hope of This Is That and Jeff Levy-Hinte of Antidote Films, who was the prime motivator behind the legal action and instrumental in compiling much of the data presented by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. In the early stages, Josh Astrachan, a producer at Robert Altman’s Sandcastle 5 company, also was a major force in galvanizing opposition.

‘Win for consumers’

“Today’s ruling is a victory for all sectors of the motion picture industry, and a real win for consumers who will continue to have access and awareness of the broadest possible range of movies,” said the plaintiffs in a statement. “It allows for all films to continue to be recognized on the basis of their merits, regardless of budgets, marketing resources, distribution, content or other elements,” they added.

“I’ve got a terrible cold and I’m sick as a dog, but I couldn’t feel better,” commented Altman, whose Gotham-based production unit was one of the plaintiffs in the case and whose upcoming Sony Classics release “The Company” was one of this season’s awards contenders affected by the screener ban.

“The judge made it clearer than any of us could have that there was real restraint of trade here,” he added. “This is a much bigger victory than just the facts. And I have so much admiration for those guys like Ted Hope who got it all going. Now we really have a level playing field again.”

The judge’s ruling was welcomed by orgs impacted by the screener ban, such as the Screen Actors Guild and the Independent Working Group comprising the New York-based studio specialty divisions (aside from Weinstein’s written declaration, the Independent Working Group was not involved in the lawsuit).

“Today’s decision is a step in the ongoing process to assure that all films, regardless of their size, get the chance they deserve,” said the IWG in a statement. “The Working Group’s offer to work with the MPAA to develop effective strategies to combat piracy still stands,” the group added.

“This means that the SAG Awards nominating committee will have the broadest possible opportunity to view and judge the work of our members,” said SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert and national exec director-CEO Bob Pisano in a joint statement Friday.

Speaking on behalf of the HFPA, prexy Lorenzo Soria said, “We are delighted with U.S. District Judge Michael B. Mukasey’s decision to overturn the screener ban inposed on organizations outside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. As we stated repeatedly over the last several weeks, we believe the ban was discriminatory and particularly damaging to those films in limited distribution that rely on screeners to be seen by critics.”

The ruling does not affect the studios’ mailing of tapes to Oscar voters. “The ruling doesn’t change anything here,” said Leslie Unger, spokeswoman for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. “We had come up with a plan to facilitate the studios sending out screeners to our members. Friday’s ruling seems to leave it in the hands of the studios if they’re going to do anything else.”

(Meredith Amdur and Claude Brodesser contributed to this report.)

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