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Oscar Screener Ban Has Film Industry Buzzing

4 Oct, 2003 By: Thomas A., Enrique R.

The film industry is reeling over a decision by studios to stop sending out DVD and videocassette screeners of Oscar hopefuls in an attempt to thwart piracy — particularly since the ban applies to all films, even those already out on video.

The Online Film Critics Society issued a statement protesting the new policy, announced Sept. 30 by Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

The 145-member group fears the action will not only prove “ineffective” in curbing piracy, but also swing Academy Award honors and other big film awards to major movies with widespread exposure.

“Not everyone is in New York or Los Angeles,” said Erik Childress, a governing member of the Online Film Critics Society and a writer for eFilmCritic.com. “You have people in Kansas City or Oklahoma, and a lot of these smaller films don’t open [there] at all.

“Screeners are the only way these folks see these movies.”

All seven members of the MPAA — MGM, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, the Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. — signed onto the ban, as have DreamWorks SKG and New Line Cinema.

Independent studios, which rely heavily on screeners to promote their films to awards voters, haven’t been quick to jump in. Artisan Entertainment CEO Amir Malin told USA Today he considers the ban “a great injustice and a knee-jerk reaction to piracy ... [that] will make it very difficult or virtually impossible for some of the best work by filmmakers to get the recognition it so richly deserves.”

Lions Gate Entertainment, another independent studio, hasn’t publicly stated whether it will continue to send out screeners, with a studio publicist issuing a simple “no comment.”

Awards screeners are movie-only DVDs or cassettes that for the last several years, as Oscar competition has heated up, have proliferated. They’re sent to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, film critics and other awards voters in the weeks leading up to filmdom’s big contests, the Golden Globes and the Oscars.

But invariably, a number of these screeners have wound up on eBay, the online auction house, where they’ve sold at highly inflated prices. Last January, 27 bidders competed for an advance DVD screener of Punch Drunk Love, which ultimately fetched $122.

Studios are alarmed at the prospect of losing a sale once the consumer product hits stores, although their real fear is that some of these screeners might wind up in the hands of pirates with vast underground duplication and distribution networks. Indeed, last year, some bootleg copies of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets being sold in China were traced to an Academy screener.

When studios have complained to eBay, auctions for their titles have been yanked. But quite often, no sooner is one auction shut down than another appears in its place — with increasingly witty wording. Last year, eBay bidders who wanted to buy an advance screener of Gangs of New York saw this in the item description: “Due to eBay shutting down auctions I am selling this NOT as a DVD but as a FRISBEE,” the seller wrote. “You may use it however you wish. BUT I AM SELLING IT AS A FRISBEE.”

Critics of the ban say the MPAA action amounts to overkill. The Online Film Critics Society statement said it believes the action “will prove ineffective, and will only punish those who are not responsible.” According to the statement, the MPAA has not presented sufficient evidence to prove that movie piracy is widespread in the film community.

“The overwhelming majority of those who receive the awards screeners are honest, law-abiding citizens,” the statement said. “The proposed withholding of awards screeners completely ignores the well-documented fact that most video piracy is based far beyond Hollywood and the film media.”The society’s Childress added, “You don’t punish an entire nation of film critics because of a bad apple.”

Childress suggests the new policy might lead a further shortening of the theatrical-to-video window, as studios send their films out to the home video market early in an effort to get them into the hands of voters in time for awards season.

But studio executives say that’s nonsense. “What — you think there will be a two-month window on a major release?” said Steve Feldstein, SVP of marketing communications for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Spokespeople for MGM Home Entertainment, Paramount Home Entertainment and Warner Home Video also said there are no plans to push up windows to accommodate awards voters.

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