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October 6, 2003 2:00 AM
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Specialty Divisions at Odds with Valenti & Studio Chiefs Over Screener Ban

Specialty Divisions at Odds with Valenti & Studio Chiefs Over Screener Ban

by Eugene Hernandez


Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) head Jack Valenti and the chiefs of the Hollywood studios are facing increased opposition to their decision to ban the use of DVD and videotape screeners during awards season campaigning. As criticism mounts, the heads of Dreamworks, MGM, New Line, Paramount, Sony, Fox, Universal, Disney and Warner Bros. are being met with denouncements from throughout the business and now are facing opposition from many of the heads of their own specialty divisions.

Representatives of the specialty film companies met again on Friday, this time welcoming execs from the independent film companies. The conference call followed the unprecedented in-person meeting of Indiewood chiefs on Wednesday in New York. One company head told indieWIRE that the group sent a letter to Jack Valenti on Friday night via FAX and email. The letter has not yet been released to the media but the exec told indieWIRE that it included "a lot of questions and some potential solutions."

The company head that spoke with indieWIRE detailed aspects of the letter. The exec indicated that the note questions "the validity of studio cassettes being a major source of piracy" and asks Valenti for "factual back up" concerning said piracy. While the note offers some solutions to the problem, it does " recognize piracy as a problem and endorses measures to be taken against it that are more meaningful than an all out attack on Academy members."

Clearly, the specialty division heads are not only at odds with Valenti, but their studio parents. Reps from Focus Features, Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, and United Artists were joined by Bob Berney from Newmarket, Eamonn Bowles from Magnolia, Marcus Hu from Strand, Amir Malin from Artisan, and Tom Ortenberg from Lions Gate during Friday's phone call. Warner Independent Pictures, Fox Searchlight and Paramount Classics are said to be steering clear of the movement against the screener ban. The letter to Valenti is being signed by a generic group name, to protect the identities of those whose studio parents have warned against executive names being included in the message.

A conference call participant told indieWIRE that during Friday's meeting the group discussed making allowances for certain films to be promoted via screeners. The group maintains that it is discriminatory to prohibit screeners of smaller films when the Indiewood companies cannot compete with the budgets of Hollywood releases. The independent companies -- those not affiliated with the studios -- are not part of the MPAA and therefore not required to abide by the screener ban.

As those against the ban continued to mobilize this weekend, no groups or individuals appeared to be speaking up in support of last week's decision.

While Jack Valenti proposed the screener ban as a way to curb movie piracy, a growing number of opponents are now openly questioning the motives of Valenti and the Hollywood studio chiefs. Some are suggesting that the decision was meant to hurt the specialty divisions of the Hollywood studios. Indeed, the ban has created a clear distinction between the specialty divisions that must heed the policies of the MPAA and the truly independent companies that are not part of the organization.

Fox Searchlight became the first company to make alternative plans for its own Oscar campaign, announcing that it will begin hosting weekly paid sneak previews of Jim Sheridan's "In America" beginning on October 9th. The showings, open to the public and free to the industry, will be held at four L.A. theaters until the film opens in late November.

Film critics joined the fray late last week along with a number of groups. Best known for their end of the year honors, critics' organizations are voicing clear opposition to the decision to ban screeners. All have relied on screeners as a way to see films for awards consideration, especially those that are only available in limited release or for one week at the end of the year. Chicago's film critics group called the ban "one of the most ill-advised and potentially destructive ideas to emerge from Hollywood since the blacklist." Continuing the group said, "Until MPAA officials can come up with a fair and workable solution, the studios should drop this ill-conceived crusade and concentrate on more important goals, such as making good movies."

"The MPAA decision to ban screeners will do little to discourage piracy but will do much to limit those films considered by the Academy to those most favored and promoted by the studios," said the National Society of Film Critics in its own statement. "It punishes the small independent film companies who are without enough resources to set up scores of screenings and woo voters to see them." Other critics groups have also weighed in as well, including the Online Film Critics Society and members of the New York and Los Angeles critics organizations and the broadcast critics group.

Letters from a number of industry figures have made the rounds via email since the ban, enlisting opposition to the decision. Ted Hope, producer of "American Splendor" and "21 Grams," two films that are potential awards contenders this year, has been especially vocal during the past week. He has lobbied against the ban to the heads of the studio specialty divisions, encouraged IFP/New York to take a stance, and rallied filmmakers, directors, agents and Academy members. Hope's more than 1,700 word "white paper" addresses a number of issues related to the screener ban. A massive 3,200 word letter from rep Jeff Dowd also drew support.

"Mr. Valenti may not realize it yet but he has inadvertently fueled the fire and overnight made piracy a 'screw you' to the big boys cause, because the perception of the media and the public is that the studios are pushing the indies and essentially their own children aside because of their profitability fears," wrote Dowd in his email. "I am fully confident that the studio heads and Jack Valenti and the MPAA are now hearing from the community and will re-consider and postpone the well-intentioned but short-sighted solution."

A number of people joined the list of those rallying against the screener ban, signing on to IFP/New York's letter against the ban. Among those whose names were added to the list included filmmakers Darren Aronofsky, Todd Field, and Richard Kelly, producers Mary Jane Skalski, Jeremy Thomas, Eric Watson, and Eden Wurmfeld, and actors Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Sissy Spacek. Kevin Iwashina, Peter Levine and Jason Tuchinsky from CAA, John Lesher from Endeavor, Julie Yorn and Adam Schulman from The Firm, and David Schiff from UTA are among the agents and managers who added their names to the IFP/New York letter.

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