Screener war vets bond post-ban

Indie producers build coalition after triumphing as a unit against MPAA's edict

“I’m thrilled that this year, screeners are going out,” says producer Ted Hope from his cell phone while tooling along a Florida freeway. He is there wrapping his latest film, “The Hawk Is Dying,” starring Paul Giamatti. “And it’s nice that (the MPAA) did not send out an I’m-your-daddy letter like they did last year.”

What a difference a year makes.

In fall 2003, as the holiday season kicked off — and perhaps even more important in Hollywood, the start of serious awards campaigning — “American Splendor” producer Hope was spending most of his time inside a Manhattan courtroom rather than in his appropriately funky This Is That headquarters on Canal Street.

With Jack Valenti and his cadre of high-priced Motion Picture Assn. of America attorneys as defendants, Hope was one of a loose coalition of indie producers who filed a lawsuit contending that the MPAA’s screener ban was illegal.

Furthermore, the fight was without aid from the corporate subsidiaries that distribute the lions’ share of high-profile indie pics including Sony Pictures Classics, Miramax Films, Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, run by Hope’s former Good Machine partners David Linde and James Schamus.

“Unfortunately,” says Hope, “I feel that there will be many other things over the next couple decades that greatly affects diverse voices’ ability to be heard and get up on the screen.”

Hope, who last year had “American Splendor” in awards contention via Fine Line, is mulling the fallout from the David vs. Goliath battle that he and a band of indie producers — including Killer Films, Robert Altman’s Sandcastle 5 Prods., GreeneStreet Films and Antidote Films — waged on the MPAA in 2003, and any ground they’ve gained since.

“The way the screener ban happened is really that nobody at the top thought to care or solicit the opinion of people who make specialized pictures — not the corporate (companies) that distribute the films, but the (films’ creators),” says Hope.

With no screener-ban issues to deal with this year, producer Michael London says that he is hugely relieved, adding that last year now seems unfathomable.

London, among several other indies, would have had a lot to lose if he and his peers hadn’t prevailed in the screener battle. Last year, London’s “Thirteen” — made with another plaintiff in the screener case, Antidote’s Jeffrey Levy-Hinte — was sidetracked by the brouhaha, but still nabbed a supporting actress nom for Holly Hunter. A year later, London has Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” another Fox Searchlight release, which should draw attention in a bevy of major categories.

Michelle Byrd, exec director of support org Independent Feature Project New York, another plaintiff in the suit, says the clash was a wake-up call for indie producers. “A lot of people, at the time the lawsuit happened, hadn’t met each other face to face. Some of them who had been working in New York for 20 years, like Robert Altman’s producer Josh Astrachan and Ted Hope, had never met until they were in the courtroom. But the whole idea of ‘we are stronger united’ totally stuck.”

IFP/New York subsequently named execs at This Is That, Antidote and GreeneStreet to its board. After a series of ad hoc meetings attended by about 60 producers, the group is planning to unveil an organization, a subcommittee of IFP/New York, to explore issues facing the industry including ratings, copyrights and piracy.

“It’s important to have (board members) who can debunk industry policies on piracy if they are shown to shoot down alternate means of distribution,” says Byrd.

So far, the nonstudio pack is giving high marks to Valenti’s successor, Dan Glickman: “What’s become clear is how Dan Glickman has really reached out to the indies,” Hope says. “He’s really trying to get a handle on this sector of the business.”

Adds Byrd: “(The suit) has opened up a door. There’s been an interest by Glickman to personally reach out and that’s totally brand new and a result of the suit.”

The rules that producers like Hope and London must live under since their films are mostly rolled out by corporate interests and MPAA signatories can seem strange for people who are making movies that are intended to appeal outside the mainstream. But the MPAA contends that indie films are pirated, too.

“Last year, the Oscars really showed us the positive effects of screeners,” says Hope, whose company has “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Door in the Floor” in the mix this year. “Newmarket was the first company to get (out) DVDs of their films. (Newmarket’s) ‘Monster’ and (Miramax’s) ‘Cold Mountain’ opened the same day. But ‘Monster’ had DVDs out weeks earlier. You also saw it with Lions Gate and ‘Girl With the Pearl Earring’ and their whole effort.”

The MPAA’s recent attempt to create a system using encoded DVDs that 6,000-plus Oscar voters would screen on special Cinea machines stalled on the runway. Indie execs, including Sony Pictures Classics co-head Tom Bernard, have been openly critical of the idea, contending that aged Oscar voters won’t be able to operate the machines without serious tech support.

Though Hope sees the screener battle as just one of a number of problems that could haunt the indies in years to come, he says the suit is historical. “The producers in New York came together in a way they didn’t before. I think it demonstrated to everyone that we could change things, we could influence things. Everyone involved walked away feeling very empowered.”

“When I think of the indie movement, I think of producers,” says Byrd. “And after years, they have taken ownership of that movement.”

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