Valenti Meets with Specialty Heads to Discuss Screener Ban
by Eugene Hernandez
MPAA chief Jack Valenti met with the heads of three specialty film companies on Wednesday to discuss the recent screener ban and the letter sent Friday by the group of specialty division heads. The three Indiewood execs represented the larger coalition of specialty divisions formed to oppose the move by Valenti and the Hollywood studio chiefs to ban the use of screeners in awards season campaigning. A source close to the specialty group, who asked that he not be identified, characterized the meeting as productive and indicated that a follow-up conversation is scheduled for today. Also on Wednesday, indieWIRE received a copy of the letter to Valenti and is publishing it in its entirety today.
“Jack was receptive and responsive,” the source close the group told indieWIRE on Wednesday. Valenti assured the division heads that he would share the details of the conversation with the heads of the signatory studios that signed the ban last week. He also agreed to have another conversation with the specialty heads, according to the source. The meeting is expected to take place today.
In the thousand word letter sent to Valenti, which indieWIRE received on Wednesday, the specialty heads expressed their commitment to preventing movie piracy, but raised a number of questions about the reasons for the ban and the basis for the decision. The coalition of Indiewood heads, which calls itself ‘The Independent Working Group’, noted the widespread confusion over the decision and also proposed specific solutions that can be implemented this year to prevent the piracy of screeners. It also offered to participate in a discussion about long-term solutions to piracy.
“Our many partners and colleagues are eagerly awaiting answers and solutions,” The Independent Working Group wrote in Friday’s letter. Concluding, they added, “It is our sincere hope that together we can quickly and effectively implement a common game plan for fighting this particular aspect of the war on piracy, without sacrificing the commitment to diversity, artistic expression, and fairness that are the core values of our community.”
Wednesday’s conference call between Valenti and top Indiewood execs lasted less than hour. Valenti reviewed the letter with the specialty division heads during the meeting. While the source did not venture to say that an overturn of the ban is in the works, he said that the group was pleased that they were able to air their concerns directly to Valenti. On Tuesday, the Independent Working Group proposed the meeting with Valenti and yesterday he responded and a call was quickly arranged. The Indiewood group decided to limit the number of participants to three in order to avoid ganging up on the MPAA chief.
“We are trying to get results,” the source told indieWIRE on Wednesday, “We just don’t want to string the guy up, we want to work within the system.”
Last week a group of specialty division heads, among them Harvey Weinstein from Miramax, David Linde & James Schamus from Focus, Bingham Ray from United Artists, Tom Bernard from Sony Pictures Classics, David Dinerstein & Ruth Vitale from Paramount Classics and others met for an unprecedented meeting to discuss the screener ban and strategize an approach to opposing it. While backlash from some studio heads kept certain reps from publicly participating last week, the group worked together to craft a letter to Valenti and sent it to him on Friday after another meeting.
An interesting undercurrent of the ongoing opposition to the screener ban is the gap that remains between the Hollywood studios, which agreed to the ban, and the heads of the specialty subsidiaries of those studios. Notably, Friday’s letter from the Indiewood group was sent only to Valenti, not the heads of the MPAA member studios. Clearly the specialty group is hoping that just as Valenti brought the proposal to the member studios, he will go back to them with modifications to address the specialty divisions’ concerns.
The Indiewood group have asked that individual members not be singled out by name due to the demands of some Hollywood studio chiefs that their specialty division heads not participate in the movement oppositing to the screener ban. It is understood that the three companies represented by top execs during Wednesday’s meeting with Valenti included Focus Features, Miramax and Sony Pictures Classics.
EDITORS NOTE: On Wednesday, October 8, 2003, indieWIRE received (by FAX) a duplicate copy of the letter that was faxed to Jack Valenti by the heads of the studio specialty divisions. The following is a complete transcript of that letter:
2 October 2003
Mr. Jack Valenti
President and Chief Executive
1600 I St. NW
Washington, DC 20006
Given all the press coverage of Wednesday’s gathering of specialty division heads, we feel you deserve to have an idea of what was discussed at the meeting.
Since the announcement by the MPAA that its members have in principle agreed to desist from sending out Academy screeners this year, we have been overwhelmed with questions – from filmmakers, exhibitors, agencies, foreign partners and others – questions that we have found impossible to answer with any real certainty or conviction. Some of these questions have to do with the rationale and timing of the decision, others with the perhaps unintended consequences the decision is having on our business. We would like to bring to your attention just some of the more pressing questions we have been faced with, and then open the door to discussion of some possible interim solutions.
We are keenly aware of the threat piracy poses to our industry, and applaud the MPAA’s vigor and leadership in prosecuting the theft of our releases and artists’ creations. It is with that threat very much in mind that we ask for thorough consideration of what follows here.
One of the first questions we have all been asked is: What criteria were used to formulate and implement this action? We have heard wildly varying accounts of the threat posed by Academy screeners and of the threshold used to impose this decision, from your oft-quoted “one-half of one percent” to accounts of Academy screeners showing up on e-Bay and copies of screeners found for sale here and in foreign countries. Unfortunately, we have been offered no details, especially in regards to the specialty business. Does the MPAA have reliable data on just what contribution to the current piracy problem Academy screeners represent? For example, if a copy of a screener was available in a certain market, were copies of the same film derived from other sources also available in that or other markets? What percentage of specialized films make up the market in pirated films — not just overall but particularly during and immediately after Oscar season? Has any study been made of the economic consequences to limited-release Oscar worthy films of this new policy — both in the short and long term?
The press release announcing the MPAA’s new policy does not articulate any policy regarding the sending of screeners to other awards-granting bodies, such as the British Academy, although we presume that these practices will now be at least frowned upon. There is no indication that foreign distributors, non-MPAA distributors, or other rights holders are in any way inclined to follow the MPAA’s suit. As with the ‘star wars’ missile shield, the ban does have appeal, although its actual implementation, if not truly detailed and comprehensive, at least appears of questionable efficiency. For the many distributors of acquired or co-financed works, the circulation of screeners by others to the members of the foreign award-granting bodies, the existence of copyable masters elsewhere, or even actual Video/DVD releases, is a simple given. Has the MPAA tracked these activities and does it know how they factor into its calculations regarding the outcome of its new policy. We also understand that the MPAA has taken the position that even films that have already been released on video and DVD cannot be sent to Academy members. What anti-piracy rationale is behind this decision?
Not having been a party to the discussions that led to this decision, we are unaware of what potential alternative approaches were explored. Because piracy is such an important concern for every member of the film community, we thought we would share some compromise proposals for this year’s awards season – proposals that would not so severely compromise the integrity of this year’s long-planned releases. We also look forward to in-depth and fruitful discussions regarding longer-term approaches – watermarking, password-controlled video-on-demand delivery, single-use DVDs, etc – that are not feasible for implementation this year.
First, if there is a recognizable significant impact from the dissemination of DVDs to Academy members, we would suggest that distributors limit their screeners to macrovision-protected VHS tapes. We also suggest that distributors agree to the use of certifiably secure duplication and shipping houses, and the tapes be sent by registered/return-receipt-requested mail. We would also suggest that small percentage of tapes be randomly and silently individually coded so that recipients would be aware that if their tapes were in fact sold or copied they might be traceable back to them. There are many other options potentially worth exploring – including a provisional exemption from the ban for limited releases – but the above appear to us to be the most effective, decisive, and easily implemented actions that could be pursued immediately.
We also believe that there is a very good chance that we could convince our peers at non-MPAA companies to join this effort instead of, as appears to be the case now, taking advantage of the competitive edge the MPAA’s ban has delivered to them.
Our many partners and colleagues are eagerly awaiting answers and solutions. Exhibitors, for example, are calculating the unexpected costs associated with the likely increased use of complementary passes and are considering potentially dramatic responses. Filmmakers, among them leading directors and actors, especially those whose films are intended both to entertain as well as extend artistic boundaries, are questioning how the entire approach to the release of their films will be impacted, especially when they hear from Oscar winners such as Frank Darabont that the new rule will have the effect of shutting out all but the most-hyped releases during the now-saturated end-of-year Oscar race. Talent agencies are already vocally questioning the logics by which their clients have been able to participate in lower-cost, artistically rewarding projects. Our foreign colleagues have, without exception, voiced their incredulity at the speed with which, as they understand it, their work and contributions to our industry will be severely handicapped.
It is our sincere hope that together we can quickly and effectively implement a common game plan for fighting this particular aspect of the war on piracy, without sacrificing the commitment to diversity, artistic expression, and fairness that are the core values of our community.
The Independent Working Group