Out-of-loop groups fume over screener solution

Decision 'doesn't please' HFPA; others also upset

This article was updated at 7:08 p.m.

Though no official notifications have been received, the MPAA’s Acad members-only stance on awards season screeners is already drawing fire.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. is “very concerned” about the notion, and will meet today on the subject. The Screen Actors Guild, which was one of the few guilds whose members actually received screeners, applauded the apparent change of heart and issued a statement that indicated vague but definite optimism.

Other groups were reluctant to take an official stance, but were privately fuming over the possibility.

The Motion Picture Assn. of America and the major studios are expected this week to adopt a compromise plan calling for encrypted VHS tapes to go out only to the roughly 6,000 Academy members (Daily Variety, Oct. 21).

The MPAA and the studios are trying to figure out a way to work with the HFPA, which hands out the Golden Globes, and the critics groups to enable their members to see the films in theaters. But these groups and the guilds (actors, writers and directors) would presumably not receive tapes.

Lorenzo Soria, prexy of the HFPA, emphasized that the org is sympathetic to the issue of piracy and understands the need to take action — “but when taking action means favoring one group over the other, it doesn’t please us.”

The org has approximately 90 voting members and “We prefer to see movies in theaters, but screeners have become a tool that’s extremely important to us.”

Soria pointed out that the group must see a slew of English-language movies, foreign movies and television shows for their awards, in addition to their work as journalists: “We don’t have the luxury of spending our entire day going to screenings.”

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. prexy Jean Oppenheimer said Tuesday, “Obviously until the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. gets together and the announcement is made official, there’s nothing I can comment on for the group. But from a personal point of view, I think this is a really calculated move on the part of the MPAA to defuse criticism from the largest group affected, which would be the Academy.

“I think this still leaves the smaller independent films at a disadvantage because those are the films that most rely on recognition from critics groups, the directors guild and others.”

A spokesman for the New York Film Critics Circle would only say: “Though the New York Film Critics Circle is opposed to the MPAA screener ban, the group does not plan to withhold its awards for 2003 in protest.”

Pisano optimistic

The Screen Actors Guild took a more upbeat view Tuesday of the compromise, even though it appears that the 2,100 members of the SAG Awards’ nominating committee will no longer be included in studios’ screener lists.

“SAG is very encouraged that the MPAA is reconsidering its position to allow coded screeners and looks forward to working with the MPAA, studios and independent producers to protect against piracy while affording SAG nominating committee members the opportunity to view all eligible performances within this compressed awards season,” said SAG CEO Bob Pisano.

The members of SAG’s nominating committee are chosen at random and generate 25 noms in five film categories for the SAG Awards. All 98,000 SAG members are eligible to vote on the nominations, with winners set to be announced Feb. 22.

The SAG noms are closely tracked as an indication of Oscar sentiment. Actors comprise about 23% of the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the largest branch.

The WGA has opposed the screener ban but was mum on Tuesday, while the DGA maintained its no-comment policy. Each guild has about 12,000 members.

SAG nom committee members have usually been allowed free admission to Los Angeles-area theaters during awards season but exhibs decided to pull the perk for other SAG members during the past awards season.

The AFI Awards will presumably be less affected than some other kudos groups: AFI’s choices are made by 13 individuals (who have yet to be announced). AFI topper Jean Picker Firstenberg said, “We feel confident that whatever the final (MPAA-studio) decision is, our jury will be prepared.” The 13 people will gather in late December. “We have a committed jury and we’re confident they’ll see the films in order to participate in the process.”

(Dave McNary and Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)