Still no truce on screeners

Another free-for-all looms

All the factions in last year’s screener wars are still sticking to their guns — meaning no clear resolution of the conflict this year.

Those points seemed apparent to those who attended a Monday-morning meeting led by Motion Picture Assn. of America president Jack Valenti.

The sit-down, held at the Peninsula Hotel, involved reps from all the major studios and their specialty divisions, indie film companies and various awards-voting groups.

While most attendees agreed that watermarking has been a big boon in the fight against piracy, there was no consensus on whether that progress was enough to cause celebration or relief.

Reps from the major studios and those from the indies remain divided over the significance of screeners in worldwide piracy, while reps of various orgs and awards groups said screeners remain vital for their members.

As for the mailing of screeners this year, the only decision was the repetition of the MPAA’s previous statement that there will be no unilateral decisions.

After one attendee suggested a committee to further investigate the piracy issue, a studio lawyer reminded those assembled that the antitrust lawsuit filed last October prevents the participants from sitting down together to come up with a unified plan of action.

At Monday’s meeting, agents from the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office spoke and focused on the need to prosecute perpetrators of film piracy.

“The thing that seemed like a big breakthrough for us was that everyone in the room, including the FBI, agreed that watermarking technology has lessened the problem of piracy in connection to screeners,” said Independent Feature Project/New York exec director Michelle Byrd.

“This means a step has been made in the right direction to provide technological solutions to combat piracy that don’t discriminate against independent films.”

While some studio reps pointed to evidence that they were right to sound a piracy alarm last fall, they will not make any studiowide policy on screeners.

“It was made clear at the outset of today’s meeting that the MPAA cannot and will not make any policy regarding screeners,” said the MPAA in a statement after the meet. “Going forward, each distributor will determine its own policy on this matter.”

Nearly 60 people attended the meeting. During last year’s screener debate, Valenti had promised this get-together to let all sides air their thoughts.

The meeting, which lasted an hour and 45 minutes, was described by one person as a “free-ranging discussion”: Anyone who wanted to speak had the chance.

This past awards season, both the pro-screener and anti-screener factions found evidence to back their respective positions. Small films such as “The Station Agent” and “Whale Rider” garnered awards attention, with distribs crediting the fact that voters had been sent screeners.

On the other hand, the FBI discovered films being pirated that were traced to the screeners of two members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (see separate story); studio reps reiterated that it only takes one copy to do millions of dollars in damage.

Valenti underlined that piracy is a business concern: If profits fall off, so will production.

But indie coalition members claimed the reduced numbers were a significant advance after the 31 films reportedly pirated from 69 awards screener titles in 2002.

Indie reps continue to push for more thorough evidence of the economic impact of piracy, in particular with regard to the type of films being targeted.

However, studio reps counter that losses can’t be quantified, only estimated.

Jean Prewitt of the American Film Marketing Assn. spoke at the meeting and pointed out that it’s not just big studio films that are targeted. She said that in many cases overseas distribs have refused to pay minimum guarantees for films that have popped up on the Internet.

Prewitt also raised the question of whether fiscal rewards from awards can offset the money lost to a film’s ancillaries (e.g., DVD) thanks to piracy.

Producer Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, who was among the leading plaintiffs in the winning lawsuit against the MPAA, said the studios are making a mistake in their attack on piracy.

“It’s quite simply wrong to equate kids downloading movies off the Internet in Kansas with bootleggers producing pirated copies for sale in Russia,” Levy-Hinte said. “We don’t necessarily have all the answers, but this current approach of prematurely criminalizing any duplication of a motion picture is just not thought through, the same as all the noise when video first came out.”

Levy-Hinte suggests a three-pronged approach:

  • Tech measures to eliminate unprotected screeners, camcorders in theaters and other factors vulnerable to film piracy

  • Further investigation to quantify the economic damage from piracy

  • Acknowledgement of the consumer demand for downloadable movies and the establishment of enforceable avenues for commercial exploitation.

“The film industry as represented by the MPAA right now is clearly not interested in different models that embrace the Internet and downloading realities,” said IFP/Los Angeles exec director Dawn Hudson. “They do not want to hear comparisons with the music recording industry. Rather than trying to learn from that, it just brings about all sorts of fear.”

As part of a push to make all points of view heard on the piracy issue, the IFP on both coasts will organize seminars to look at alternative ways of fighting piracy while opening the commercial possibilities for film and at the same time protecting copyright.

Talks will take place during the IFP Los Angeles Film Festival in June and during the IFP Market in New York in September.

(Dana Harris contributed to this report.)

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