The sky is not falling. The world has not come to an end. Art and quality will still, as they always have, triumph — even without the luxury of watching unprotected theatrical films at home. This is true for indie and blockbuster alike.
Being, I believe, the only human being glutton enough for punishment to have run production for a true independent, a studio independent, and a studio, I know a bit of what I speak. In my youth and childhood, when I had the privilege to work for the Samuel Goldwyn Company, there were no “Academy screeners.” How then, did Ken Branagh, a complete unknown making his first film, possibly get nominated for Best Actor and Best Director? How did “Henry V” actually win the Academy Award for Best Costume? How did Bruce Davison get nominated for Best Supporting Actor for a tiny, PBS originated film, called “Longtime Companion”?
Shall I tell you the dirty little secret answer to those riddles and countless other independent successes at the Oscars, before screeners? The pictures were worthy. How, multiple Oscar noms or wins for pictures like “A Room with a View” (Cinecom), “Blue Velvet” (DEG), “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” (Island Alive), “Trip to Bountiful” (Island) and “Salvador” (Hemdale)? Never mind a little Irish film from a feisty young independent company not yet aligned with a major studio, called “My Left Foot” (Miramax) or, lest we forget, the godfather of all independents, John Cassavetes, Oscar nominated for “Faces” (Castle Hill Productions) and “Woman Under the Influence” (Faces International). Quality will win out. Word of mouth works.
Will there perhaps be some great indie films overlooked? Yes, just as there always have been, and just as some great studio films will be overlooked. To this day, I don’t know why our film “Cast Away,” for all the great reviews, all the screeners, all the trade ads, was largely passed over by the Academy. We loved it; the voters didn’t. ‘Twas ever thus.
At Searchlight, we will just have to work even harder to get people to see “Thirteen,” “In America” and “Bend it Like Beckham,” in screenings or theatres. That is a good thing. If the films are in fact as good as we believe they are, then Academy members will find them and, in the main, justice will be done. The same will be true for all the great films this year from Focus, Paramount Classics, Sony Pictures Classics, UA and all the other MPAA studio owned specialty divisions. We are all equal in the boat.
This is what makes patently absurd the “big studio conspiracy theory” currently being stoked by those unhappy with the prospect of going to movie theatres like regular folk. All the studios now have specialized units. Oscars for Searchlight mean every bit as much to all of us at Fox Filmed Entertainment as Oscars for Twentieth; indeed, when, for example, Hillary Swank wins for “Boys Don’t Cry,” it means even more. That’s some ridiculous conspiracy, when the conspirators would be conspiring against themselves!
Moreover, if the MPAA’s increased care does anything, it advantages pure independents who, if they believe screeners are worth the risk to their copyrights, can proceed as they wish. Before the media obsession with Oscars-as-a-sport turned the Academy Awards “race” into the circus it is today, quality came through and it still will — perhaps even more so.
There is also a very good distribution shift that may come of this which will benefit smaller films particularly. Instead of every Oscar-worthy indie being released in the last quarter of the year, there will be advantages to getting out early and having a theatrical run at a less crowded time. There is no question that the best thing for the audience, is to spread out adult oriented films throughout the year.
Over the summer, one person after another kept telling me about a film called “Whale Rider.” So, finally, I went with my family to the Town and Country and saw it. Believe me, when January comes the impact that Keisha Castle-Hughes’ performance had on me will not be forgotten, whether Newmarket sends me a cassette or not.
Lastly, I must take issue with the defeatism of Variety‘s editorial position on this subject, which declares the MPAA’s decision “too little, too late.” It is neither. It is not too little because for us to have any credibility with our fight around the world to protect our intellectual property, we must have our own house in absolute order. And it’s certainly not too late, as the war with piracy, which is the single greatest threat to the art form of film, is just starting.
This is a small, but necessary early step on that long journey. Hopefully, it’s prefatory to better technological and ISP solutions which may come very soon, but in the meantime, every journey begins with such steps. Variety, of all publications on earth, should support all efforts, small and large, to combat piracy. After all, if movies fall into the thievery morass now afflicting music, Chicken Little will be the voice of understatement.
Tom Rothman is co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment.