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And the Loser Is ... Just About Everyone in This Fight

THE NATION | THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

December 06, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

A New York federal judge's decision Friday to quash, at least temporarily, the Oscar screener ban was a humiliating defeat for embattled Motion Picture Assn. of America chief Jack Valenti and his major studio allies. But there was plenty of embarrassment to go around. After watching nearly two months of preposterous propagandizing on all sides of the screener controversy, it's hard to imagine anyone coming out of this fight without some egg on his face.

It's not just the MPAA that looked bad. The much-heralded independence of the studio specialty divisions turned out to be largely a fiction. Doomsday manifestos were issued by all sorts of critics groups and union guilds, who suddenly found unanimity when it came to losing their living room screeners.

Ostensibly inspired by the industry's get-tough piracy offensive, the screener ban turned out to be the big Hollywood story of the year, eclipsing even such worthy contenders as the J.Lo/Ben Affleck wedding that wasn't.

But this story wasn't just about piracy. A story has legs when there's a chasm between people's publicly stated position on an issue and their private agendas. This was particularly true of the Oscar screeners, which, according to most experts, represented a minor breach in the industry's piracy firewall.

The real issues here were expediency and entitlement, which is why most of the supposedly strongly held moral views of the screener-ban combatants were largely shaped by who was signing their paychecks.

The ban was instigated by Warner Bros. chief Barry Meyer, with a big assist from News Corp. Chairman Peter Chernin, the industry's two leading anti-piracy advocates. Eager to move ahead with more aggressive anti-piracy measures to protect their enormous DVD profits, the studio chiefs used Valenti to herd the other studios into signing off on the ban, which was rushed through with such stealth that several studio chairmen were kept out of the loop until it was a done deal.

But it quickly became apparent that Valenti and his studio bosses had overplayed their hand. They underestimated the depth of honest opposition to the ban from independent film companies that rely on Oscar nominations as marketing tools to get timid moviegoers to sample their provocative fare.

More important, they were completely unprepared for the furious reaction of academy voters, film critics and industry guild members -- otherwise known as the people of privilege who had their favorite free holiday-season perk yanked out of their hands. Valenti and his studio bosses saw the screener issue as a convenient way to make a bold anti-piracy statement. So they went after an easy target -- Oscar voters -- instead of taking on a tough adversary, like the masses of young moviegoers who've been making hundreds of thousands of downloads of movies from the Internet each week.

The screener ban had another disastrous unintended consequence: It drove a wedge between the studios and their specialty divisions, destroying their carefully cultivated image as independently run companies. When reporters went looking for vocal opponents to the ban, the heads of the specialty divisions -- even Miramax's normally fearless chief Harvey Weinstein -- dropped out of sight, gagged by their big-studio chiefs.

As recently as Wednesday, when Valenti and his allies made their case in a Lower Manhattan courtroom, the industry's specialty division chiefs, including Weinstein, Sony Classics' Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, Focus Features' James Schamus and United Artists' Bingham Ray, were no-shows, even though they were just a $5 taxi ride away from the courthouse.

The one specialty division chief who did make an appearance was Warner Independent Pictures' Mark Gill, who actually testified on behalf of the major studios, saying he was convinced people could run successful Oscar campaigns "without screeners." It was a stark example of how firmly piracy views were shaped by who was signing the paycheck. For years, Gill was a top Miramax executive and an architect of the studio's fabled Oscar campaigns. Wearing his Miramax stripes, he would've been just as eloquent echoing the sentiments of Weinstein, his former boss, who told the judge (in a prepared statement) that a successful awards season "could mean the difference between a movie grossing $5 million at the box office and grossing $20 million."

The media didn't come out unscathed either. When it comes to posturing, no one has outdone the L.A. Film Critics Assn. Outraged by the screener ban, which the group said would do irreparable harm to edgier, less-conventional films, the group canceled its annual awards show, which, of course, exists largely to give a publicity bump to edgier, less-conventional films.

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