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March 11, 2004 2:00 AM
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Raiders of the Art House; Is Piracy a Threat to Indie Film?

Raiders of the Art House; Is Piracy a Threat to Indie Film?

by Steven Rosen









Producer Ted Hope and IFP/New York executive director Michelle Byrd pictured in December celebrating their victory in the case against the MPAA. Photo credit: Eugene Hernandez © indieWIRE (shot on the Kodak LS443).


Now that the movie awards season is ending, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have an unusual problem: What to do with all the unwanted Oscar screeners crowding their homes?

Studios told members to agree to protect their encrypted, traceable videos and DVDs from piracy. And that includes proper disposal. "I wouldn't want to toss one out in a dumpster -- people go through those all the time," said John Pavlik, the Academy's communications director. "We're suggesting to members who call to pull the tape out of their cassettes or break their DVDs. Or call the studios and ask them what to do."

Academy members know this is a serious issue. As federal grand jury recently indicted an Illinois man for copying screeners sent to him by (now-expelled) Academy member Carmine Caridi.

This a fittingly problematic, paranoid way for the screener-controversy issue to wrap. The brouhaha started last fall, when the Motion Picture Association of America -- the trade association for the studios, including their boutique "classics" divisions -- attempted first to ban screeners outright and then limit access just to Oscar voters.

Independent-film producers and advocates, who say specialized films need screener distribution to get seen by awards voters whose nominations can then lure moviegoers, successfully sued to stop the MPAA by citing antitrust concerns. Representatives of both sides said they're now working toward a satisfactory permanent agreement.

Piracy in several forms is a key concern for studios and their new releases, which frequently cost in excess of $100 million to produce and market. In addition to screeners, studios are worried about illegal recordings of movies in theaters, which then get uploaded to the internet and/or are made into bootleg DVDs.

They're also pursuing unauthorized copying of prints from post-production houses and theater chains, which also find their way to the internet or the streets. Last month, three employees of a Los Angeles video/DVD duplication firm were arrested for making such copies.

MPAA spokesman Rich Taylor said his organization estimates the industry loses approximately $3.5 billion annually to bootlegged videos and DVDs. And, he added, that doesn't include loss from internet downloading.

But should the indie film world be worried about piracy as a threat? Viewpoints differ among the experts. "It doesn't affect our movies -- I don't see audiences running home to download 'The Fog of War' or 'Monsieur Ibrahim' or our Czech film ('Zelary')," said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.

To him, the independent-film audience is too mature and discerning for piracy. "They prefer to see a film on a screen or, if at home, on a DVD with added features. It's not something they want to buy on the street that was shot on a camera in the theater," he continued.

Bernard also believes that studios have helped create their own piracy monster. They spend heavily to create a sense of urgency for big films on opening weekends and accept that interest usually falls after that. That feeds piracy of unreleased and just-released movies.

That's a good point, said Dawn Hudson, executive director of Independent Feature Project/West, sponsor of the Independent Spirit Awards and a plaintiff in the suit against the MPAA. "I can't think of a single independent movie that becomes an event film

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