MPAA and AMPAS Allow Screeners for Some
by Eugene Hernandez
A compromise has been reached in the battle over awards screeners. In an announcement Thursday, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) detailed a plan, dubbed a one-year experiment, which will allow the distribution of VHS screeners, but no DVDs, to Academy members only.
MPAA president and CEO Jack Valenti and AMPAS president Frank Pierson said in a joint announcement Thursday that screeners can be distributed to Academy members who sign a binding agreement guaranteeing that the screeners are for their personal use only. The screeners must not be circulated or copied.
"Under this plan, all films are treated as equals," said Jack Valenti in a statement. "There can be no misread of the purpose of this initiative, which is the long-term health of this industry for films large and small."
The Independent Working Group, an anonymous group of the heads of the various studio specialty divisions, did not issue a statement in response to the decision, but one active member of the group who spoke with indieWIRE on Thursday expressed reservations about the decision and stopped short of calling the compromise a victory. The individual indicated that the group would meet on Friday to discuss the MPAA/AMPAS announcement.
"Granting the privilege of screeners to Academy members only ignores the role that critics and the guilds play in helping to recognize and champion great work," said Ted Hope, a producer who has been a vocal protestor of the ban. "The Oscars are but the last stop on a long campaign. If we are to have a truly diverse film culture, we have to level the playing field not just for all films, but also for those who are the apparatus that help lift these films toward the recognition they deserve (along with a host of other issues not to be addressed here)."
The decision says that Valenti and Pierson "emphasized that the compromise should work on the one hand to allay the fears of film artists that smaller, less-widely-distributed pictures would not be able to compete for Academy Awards(R) on an even footing with larger studio productions this year, and on the other hand to give the studios some reassurance about the piracy issues that had originally led the MPAA to announce that no 2003 screeners would be distributed.
The pair said, in a joint statement that "Defeating piracy in the digital world must be the prime concern of film communities not only in the U.S., but around the world," continuing Pierson added, "The practice of sending out huge numbers of screeners without suitable protection produced grave dangers in the new digital environment. It could not have been allowed to continue.
"For all practical purposes it's a big step forward, and the tremendous outcry from the creative community was heard as evidenced by today's news from the MPAA and Academy who rescinded the 'for your consideration' screener ban," said IFP/New York director Michelle Byrd in a reaction Thursday. "As the statement acknowledges, it's a one-year, short-term solution and it is our hope that the MPAA will take the time to fully address the long-term impact of their policy on screeners on the entire industry. If IFP/New York can continue to provide a forum to facilitate a dialogue amongst our members who represent the lion's share of the independent film community, we will happily take on that work."
While AMPAS stayed on the sidelines as specialty divisions and a number of other groups protested the screener ban by Valenti and the Hollywood studios, Pierson said Thursday that he felt compelled to step in and encourage a compromise after hearing increased opposition to the ban. "As the days wore on, and more and more fears were expressed in news articles, op-ed pieces and letters to me from our members," said Pierson in a statement, "I thought it might be appropriate for me to call Jack and see if a compromise might be worked out."
Pierson detailed that Academy members must agree to keep screeners "under their control at all times, protect them from being reproduced in any fashion, and, at the end of awards season, securely dispose of any they do not wish to retain." He added that those who fail to meet those conditions will "face expulsion from the Academy as well as possible legal action from the copyright holders if a pirated screener is traced back to them."
AMPAS will collect the names of members who agree to the terms and provide them to the signatory companies that wish to send screeners. To answer criticisms from other groups that annually honor films, Jack Valenti said that the MPAA would organize screenings in New York and Los Angeles movie theaters for as many groups as possible.
"The Ban must be waived for everyone who have participated in the privilege of screeners previously," concluded Ted Hope. "It is fine to take it on a year by year basis (our world is constantly shifting after all), but such important decisions require that all voices effected have a chance to comment and advise, and that any decision is made early enough in the acquisition year so as not to harm those that chose to sign with an MPAA signatory company."