Preliminary Victory in Case Against MPAA Seen as Major Achievement for Indies
by Eugene Hernandez
Whether or not independent and specialty films win major prizes during awards season this year, indies can already claim a big victory. It is a win that they hope will lead to changes within the traditional film business. The screener ban, viewed as a major miscalculation on the part on the MPAA and its member studio chiefs, created animosity towards the studios from within the independent and specialty film communities and the victory in court last week has indies demanding a seat at the table when major decisions are made in the future.
Even before Judge Michael Mukasey had finished reading the verdict in the Indies v. MPAA case on Friday, word was already out to the Hollywood studio specialty divisions, “the dependents” as many have taken to calling them. Now some Indiewood companies, as we like to call them, are carrying on with awards season campaigns that include screeners, while others remain at the mercy of studio chiefs who perhaps hope to prevent disgrace from the stinging anti-trust suit they are facing.
“The screener ban will significantly harm independent films, thereby reducing the competition these films pose to major studio releases,” Judge Mukasey said in his decision Friday, “Plaintiffs here have demonstrated a ‘significant threat of injury’ as a result of the screener policy. Plaintiffs have shown that they are at risk to suffer losses in revenue as a result of the Screener Ban.”
Specialty division heads are hardly upset at having their corporate parents challenged in court by colleagues from the independent film community. “I am happy to be sued by any of the filmmakers who would wish to… anytime,” joked the head of one specialty division during a conversation with indieWIRE on Sunday. Of course, he asked to remain anonymous, in deference to his studio bosses.
Producer Jeff Levy-Hinte of Antidote, a lead plaintiff in the case, hopes that Friday’s verdict will “systemically change the MPAA to make it more responsive.” Continuing he added, “I think this is the price that they have to pay for participating in a conspiracy.”
“We want to make sure that there is a place for the independents, and not just the dependents, in discussions that truly affect our business and how we make and market and promote our movies,” plaintiff and producer Ted Hope of This Is That told indieWIRE this weekend.
The indies are certainly anxious to participate in ongoing discussions about piracy. Plaintiffs indicated that they hope to see the MPAA undertake a scientific study on the matter. The Independent Working Group, a collection of some of the heads of the studio specialty divisions, issued a statement late Friday applauding the decision and reiterating a commitment to developing strategies to combat piracy.
“Jack Valenti has already shown every indication of embracing the independent community, not just on piracy,” Hope said during the conversation with indieWIRE, “The man really does have a love and appreciation for cinema, not just mainstream studio [movies].”
Friday’s preliminary injunction from Judge Mukasey was the first part of the costly anti-trust lawsuit brought by the independent coalition. While there have been discussions with New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer about criminal prosecutions, according to one plaintiff in the case, the group is expecting to settle the matter out of court. Plaintiffs are already circulating a variety of proposals for next steps in the case and also pursuing ways to raise money for the mounting legal fees.
“In my reading of the transcript the judge speaks of likely victory,” Ted Hope told indieWIRE, “I would imagine that they would move for some sort of settlement.” Levy-Hinte agreed, saying that he expects to “achieve a quick and effective settlement.”
The 14 production companies and two chapters of the IFP that sued the MPAA reveled in their victory over the weekend. Specialty divisions with greater autonomy moved the fastest to take advantage of the situation. A number of coalition members told indieWIRE this weekend that Focus acted immediately and dispatched screeners of “21 Grams,” “Lost in Translation,” and “Sylvia” to members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the group that presents the annual Golden Globe Awards. Others are expected to follow, although there are concerns that companies like Time Warner and its Fine Line and HBO units, as well as MGM and its United Artists division, will be prevented from sending out screeners.
“I felt that we were on the side of right,” Hope told indieWIRE, “That there was a lot of community sentiment, whether it was being expressed publicly or not — if we weren t the ones to act no one else was going to.”
In the wake of Friday’s decision, gifts of gratitude made their way to indie coalition plaintiffs from agents and managers in L.A., not to mention from some of the publicly silent specialty film distributors. The fact that many Indiewood chiefs were absent from last week’s hearing disappointed the plaintiffs, though, yet they credit Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein for his participation in the suit.
“We wouldn’t have won our case without Harvey coming forward and speaking in the declaration,” Hope told indieWIRE.
“Miramax began as a small, independent film company and we will always remain loyal to our roots,” Weinstein said in a statement issued late Friday. “I submitted my declaration because of Miramax’s continued dedication to all independent films and filmmakers. The Miramaxes, Sony Classics and Focus Films of the future will all need the avenues of promotion that we were able to take advantage of in order to serve and stimulate the audiences of tomorrow.”
People were also buzzing this weekend about the testimony of Warner Independent Pictures’ president Mark Gill who spoke about the importance of careful handling when distributing specialized and independent films, but also discounted the importance of screeners in that process.
Producer Ted Hope was surprised that Gill, who achieved Oscar acclaim for Hope’s production of “In The Bedroom” while at Miramax, would minimize the role that screeners played in that winning campaign.
“I have to think that there was a tremendous amount of pressure put on him,” Ted Hope told indieWIRE, “I know that he loves and is truly committed to the types of films that we make.”
“I am surprised that he didn’t start claiming that the earth was flat,” joked Levy-Hinte during the conversation with indieWIRE this weekend, referring to Gill’s testimony. “He showed himself to be a loyal soldier to his studio. He only made one friend and made a lot of enemies,” added Levy-Hinte.
Mark Gill, who was unavailable for comment on Friday after the decision, also took a jab from his competitors at the other specialty companies. One member of the Independent Working Group told indieWIRE this weekend that they sent Gill a six-pack of Schlitz beer, along with a letter thanking him for his support.