Actors, writers, helmers add voices

Following last week’s protest from many of the world’s foremost film directors, a growing group of actors is being marshaled to add its voice to those opposed to the MPAA and studio-backed ban on awards-consideration screeners, with the Writers Guild of America West also stepping into the fray.

After gathering together industry figures to sign a protest statement early last week soon after the ban was announced, IFP has continued rallying opposition to the move from both coasts.

IFP/New York exec director Michelle Byrd and her IFP/Los Angeles counterpart Dawn Hudson are now reaching out to actors to lend their names to a protest to be published in the coming days.

“This is a ban that not only affects the independent films but also the edgier studio films like ‘Adaptation,’ ‘Moulin Rouge,’ ‘Fight Club’ and ‘American Beauty’ — films that also have to find their audience and find their supporters among Academy voters,” Hudson told Daily Variety.

Thesps known to have signed on to the anti-ban movement include Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, whose critically lauded work in Focus Features’ upcoming “21 Grams” risks slipping under the radar at awards time without the additional push of screeners.

Also directly affected this year by the ban is fellow signatory Holly Hunter, for Fox Searchlight’s “Thirteen.”

Other thesps on board include Frances McDormand, Robin Wright Penn, Rosanna Arquette, Hilary Swank, Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, Ellen Burstyn, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Don Cheadle, Willem Dafoe, Olympia Dukakis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Linus Roache, Peter Sarsgaard, Tracey Ullman and Selma Blair.

“This is an acknowledgement that actors are often the triggers for financing and distribution decisions on independent movies so it’s really important their voices are heard,” Byrd said. “The ban creates a disadvantage for actors in films released by the studio divisions, which often are the ones that need real support campaigns.

“The agencies and publicists have been incredibly active with behind-the-scenes support because they know how important this is to their clients,” she added.

Tilting the playing field

“Screeners have become an important part of the way small, well-written films find their audience,” said Victoria Riskin, president of Writers Guild of America West. “Oscar winners such as Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”), Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) and John Irving (“The Cider House Rules”) were first brought to the attention of Academy voters via just these means. To place a gag order on ‘screeners’ is to tilt the playing field from small films to large.”

Melissa Gilbert, newly re-elected prexy of the Screen Actors Guild, added her voice to the chorus of actors, directors and writers blasting the move with a litany of rebuttals.

“It creates a hugely inequitable and hugely unleveled playing field,” Gilbert said. “This whole issue of piracy — the assumption by the MPAA that members of the Academy, the voting members of the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild — that voting members are the ones who would leak this? The very people who create it? That the voting community of Hollywood is the community they’re accusing of doing this is mind-boggling. It’s ridiculous. It’s totally unfair, and I would certainly urge the MPAA to reconsider.”

Gilbert said that the SAG national board of directors had not yet had an opportunity to meet and discuss the issue but would be meeting this weekend. She said she was “sure that we’ll have an official statement” by the end of that meeting.

The actors’ protest coordinated by IFP aims at continuing the momentum started last week by the same org’s original letter to the MPAA, which now has some 300 names attached; and the directors’ group letter published Friday, which brings together 142 names, including Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford, Pedro Almodovar and Sydney Pollack.

Other names known to have boarded since that letter was published include Todd Haynes, Rebecca Miller, Nicholas Hytner, Nicolas Roeg and screenwriter-turned-helmers Julian Fellowes and Richard Curtis, whose upcoming comedy “Love Actually” from Universal will be a potential Oscar candidate this year.

Many involved in assembling the protest groups have pointed fingers at director Steven Soderbergh, who is known to have been contacted for support but failed to respond.

Several observers have traced a link between the director’s non-position on the screener issue and the fact that his Section 8 production banner is based at Warner, one of the key studios behind the ban. Soderbergh is working to a tight schedule on HBO series “K Street” and has not been reachable for comment.

Spielberg, Lucas out

But organizers said the response has been overwhelmingly positive. While a number of industryites contacted simply dodged calls or did not respond, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are believed to be the only directors approached who declined to be involved — the former due to necessary alignment with DreamWorks’ position and the latter due to a general objection to films being watched on screeners.

Ron Howard also steered clear of the hot-button issue and, like most directors who are head of studio-based production shingles, decided to adhere to the wishes of his distributor on the sensitive issue.

Other helmers such as Spike Lee were shooting films and could not be reached by organizers last week, who were working under time pressure to assemble as many names as possible for timely publication.

Too busy to vote?

Indeed, production schedules appear likely to be a major obstacle also at Oscar voting time, a problem alleviated in the past 10 years by screeners.

“One of the many groups to be disadvantaged by the ban are any Academy members shooting movies during the voting period,” said Bruce Cohen, who produced multiple Oscar-winner “American Beauty” with partner Dan Jinks. The team is preparing to shoot “The Forgotten.”

“We’re on location in New York shooting through the end of January, so for us to attend screenings is going to be almost impossible,” he added.

(Claude Brodesser in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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