Tale of the tapes

History of screener policing begins with piracy stats

Whose idea was it anyway?

That’s the question that has been plaguing the indie sector since the MPAA announced its ban on Oscar screeners.

In spite of all number of paranoid theories about the reasons for the ban, the general consensus is that the motivation for the ban was piracy and piracy alone.

It all began in late September.

The CEOs of the majors — Fox’s Peter Chernin, Warner Bros.’ Barry Meyer and Jeff Bewkes; Disney’s Peter Murphy, Sony’s Yair Landau, Paramount’s Jonathan Dolgen, MGM’s Alex Yemenidjian and Universal’s Karen Randall among others — met with their trade org to discuss piracy. At that meeting they were given a presentation by Recording Industry Assn. of America prexy Cary Sherman about the effect of piracy on the music biz.

According to MPAA statistics, the movie biz loses $3 billion-$4 billion a year due to piracy; in 2002 the MPAA seized $40 million in just pirated optical discs.The presentation was enough to spur execs to take action.

At the meeting, nobody seemed to have addressed the accusation that post-production houses should be monitored. The primary sources of movie piracy were outlined at the meeting perhaps falsely as camcorders at industry and test screenings and the mailed-out awards screeners.

A new study by a team of researchers from AT&T Labs found that 77% of all movies illegally traded over the internet came from people within the movie industry.

Lax security in editing rooms, outsourced effects and postproduction houses were in particular cited as possible leaks, as were marketing, advertising and other studio personnel who have access to film footage.

In just one month, January 2003, the MPAA found that 13 titles of 2002 films, including “The Hours” and “Gangs of New York,” were pirated in other countries and these titles were traced to studio screeners.

In all, 68 titles were sent out last season on encrypted DVDs. Since January, the MPAA says it’s discovered that 34 were pirated and sourced directly back to screeners. (Other titles included “Chicago,” “Catch Me if You Can,” and “Die Another Day.”)

So, after the meeting, Meyer had an idea: Why not ban screeners altogether?

Meyer then called MPAA topper Jack Valenti, who urged the WB chief to poll the CEOs of other studios to gauge their opinions.

Meyer called Sony’s John Calley and Jeff Blake, Universal’s Ron Meyer and Stacey Snider, Paramount’s Jonathan Dolgen, Fox’s Chernin and Disney’s Robert Iger among others.

Most concurred with Meyer. He then went back to Valenti to see if the MPAA could figure out a way to institute a ban.

Before the official announcement, studios were encouraged to consult their indie divisions; due to a time crunch, many of the specialty wings were not told until after the deal with the studio CEOs was agreed upon.

An announcement was made Sept. 30 by the MPAA, citing “a determined commitment to combat digital piracy and to save movie jobs in the future.” It went on to say that the member companies of the MPAA and their subsids, plus DreamWorks and New Line, would not send out any screeners for awards consideration purposes.

None of those involved counted on the ensuing backlash, which caught senior studio brass in Hollywood and Valenti completely off guard.

Before the ban was announced on Sept. 30, Daily Variety printed two stories saying that such a plan was in the works; at the time, a number of Hollywood honchos were privately ready to take credit for the arrangement.

Since they were met with a firestorm of criticism, however, the architects of the ban have been silent, leaving MPAA chief Jack Valenti to take the heat.

Many in Hollywood say they feel the antipiracy motives were sincere, but the CEOs had not thought through their decision.

“A lot of this has been an attempt to show Wall Street and shareholders that ‘we’re really doing something,’ to show them that the film business won’t be in the mess that the music business is in,” says an Academy member. “Studios are bleeding internally, there are layoffs and cutbacks, they’re having to rethink the way they do business.” Many feel that it’s not too farfetched to assume that the ban was a calculated plot to take away the awards clout of independent companies.

Others disagree.

“I don’t think it’s an Oscar conspiracy against the indies,” says one insider. “Do these executives really feel threatened by Strand and ThinkFilm? Even an Oscar win for their own studio isn’t on these guys’ radar. The box office boon from Oscar is a small blip to the congloms.”

A few believe that the decision points up the fact that honchos at the Hollywod majors were motivated by getting their own companies in order. They did not, per these observers, think through the decision much beyond the direct impact of piracy on their bottom lines — but not on their own specialty divisions, the indie sector at large or the upcoming awards season.

Whatever the rationale, the MPAA and its signatory companies now have to figure out whether encoded videocassettes sent only to Academy members will be a workable solution — and whether (as they hope) it will finally make everybody shut up.

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