Despite Agreement in Hollywood, Specialty Chiefs Reject Valenti's Move to Halt Oscar Screeners
by Eugene Hernandez
A proposal by Jack Valenti and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) aimed at halting the distribution of DVDs and VHS tapes in awards season campaigning seemed set for ratification late Monday. The proposal was a hot topic within the film business yesterday with considerable resistance coming from New York's film community. While comments from even the most vocal members of the film community were limited to whispers and rumors throughout the day though, it quickly became clear that Indiewood rivals are indeed against the Valenti proposal. The impact of the muted opposition within the specialty divisions remains to be seen.
With the stated intention of curtailing movie piracy, MPAA chief Valenti and a number of Hollywood studio chiefs are intending to halt the distribution of tapes and discs in their awards campaigns and Valenti is securing studio ratification of the plan. For the policy to become a reality, all seven MPAA studios need to sign on, a move that will affect the seven specialty divisions and their Oscar campaigns. On Monday, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), which has been silent on the issue, seemed to distance itself ever so slightly from Valenti's proposal, clarifying that he is not representing AMPAS in his efforts.
In his campaign to halt movie piracy, Valenti has decided that copies of movies that are released early to Oscar voters and others are a danger to the film industry. "Anything across the board that will reduce piracy by one-half of one percent I am anxious to do," Jack Valenti told The New York Times. "Anything that gets movies in the hands of people before they go to home video is an invitation to piracy. I'm trying to close every loophole I can, and this is one of them." Neither Valenti nor a representative at the MPAA would comment on the issue Monday.
Oscar campaigning typically drives the release strategies at the studio specialty divisions and at smaller independent distribution companies, so the move to stop tape and disc distribution would radically alter the playing field in this season's campaign and could have deeper ramifications within the specialty film business. Simply, the removal of VHS and DVD copies of films from the campaign process will make it harder for limited release films to gain awareness during awards season.
The heads of the studio specialty divisions are clearly against the Valenti proposal, according to a number of insiders that indieWIRE spoke with on Monday, including division heads who spoke anonymously. In fact, Valenti's proposal puts specialty division heads at odds with the studio chiefs that back the effort. At Warner Bros., for example, studio head Barry Meyer is leading a charge that would hurt the Oscar campaign for the HBO Films/Fine Line film "American Splendor" from his own company.
"The specialized film business has become the branch of the business that is supposed to make the Academy-qualifying movies," explained Ted Hope, producer of "American Splendor." "If you can't compete on those terms, why have a specialized films business?"
The MPAA board of directors includes the heads of all of the Hollywood studios: The Walt Disney Company, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Studios, and Warner Bros. The seven studios own, respectively, the Indiewood specialty film companies Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, United Artists, Paramount Classics, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Warner Independent Pictures, New Line Cinema, and Fine Line Features. Chiefs and reps for all of the specialty companies were contacted by indieWIRE on Monday but none would comment on the record.
Rich Taylor of the MPAA told indieWIRE on Monday that the organization represents all of the studios and that policy declarations are made on behalf of all seven Hollywood studios. "You would want as much unanimity as possible," Taylor said. "We work as a web of unity here."
While an agreement to cease VHS and DVD distribution would hurt the specialty divisions, at least this year it could give marketers at non-studio affiliated independent companies (such as Newmarket Films, Magnolia Pictures, ThinkFilm, IFC Films and others) a slight, but temporary, advantage since they would not be restricted from sending out the screeners. That said, execs at indie companies consider the move to be bad news.
"Obviously, it's a savage blow to any non-wide release film with Academy aspirations," Magnolia chief Eamonn Bowles told indieWIRE. "If a film is not readily available to Academy voters, it will suffer greatly. Since the complex, higher-quality films are rarely the ones given saturated releases, obviously they'll be the ones hurt the most, regardless of their worthiness."
"Bigger companies will spend even more on ads (and) screenings, making it more difficult ultimately for smaller films to get recognized - it really hurts smaller films," IFC Entertainment chief Jonathan Sehring told indieWIRE on Monday.
AMPAS sought to clarify on Monday that the push for stopping tape and disc distribution is coming from the MPAA not AMPAS, which is an unaffiliated organization. Correcting media reports in The New York Times and other publications, an AMPAS rep said that while Valenti is a member of the Academy, he "has no other official connection with the Academy or the Oscars. He is not the president of the Academy, he is not a member of the Board of Governors and he sits on no Academy committee." The rep also added that AMPAS is not in any way involved with the so-called "Academy screeners," as they are called within the film biz.
Independent distribution companies remain unsure about how the proposal would affect them. While non-studio, independent marketers would be in the clear this year, some worry that a change in policy could come from AMPAS next year.
"It's their headache," THINKFilm's Mark Urman told indieWIRE, referring to the studios and their specialty divisions. "I don't necessarily have to worry, but I promise they will do something to tie my hands next year and that's what worries me."