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A Pre-Oscars Perk Gets Erased

A ban on the distribution of free tapes and DVDs to academy members is meant to deter piracy but sparks a Hollywood outcry.

October 01, 2003|John Horn and Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writers

One of Hollywood's greatest freebies -- the bonanza of DVDs and videocassettes that clogs showbiz mailboxes every awards season -- met an abrupt end Tuesday after the major studios agreed to halt their largess in the name of fighting movie piracy.

The self-imposed ban on "for your consideration" copies of current releases carries with it the promise of big changes in Oscar politics and the balance of Hollywood awards power.

Critics of the new rule say smaller films that benefited from easy, living-room exposure will suddenly be less visible than major "must-see" studio productions. A platoon of Academy Awards strategists, already facing a shortened lead-up to next year's early Oscars broadcast, will lose a powerful marketing tool. And Hollywood's voting elite, it appears, will have to leave the comfort of their leather-upholstered living rooms to venture into the multiplexes or crowded screening rooms that are quickly becoming booked to capacity now that the word is out.

The decision, rumored for more than a year, was hammered out in recent days, with talks among the seven major studios and their trade organization, the Motion Picture Assn. of America, concluding at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday.

But before the sun had risen on the West Coast, the plan already was being denounced -- with the studios' very own art-house divisions as its staunchest critics.

Representatives of several of the divisions said they were organizing an emergency meeting for today in New York to consider their possible responses.

And in a signal that the ban may yet face some serious opposition, Miramax Films, recently the most consistent purveyor of Academy Award-winning films, declined to endorse the ruling, even though it is owned by Disney Co., which agreed to the ban.

The MPAA plan does not affect Hollywood's truly independent companies, such as Lions Gate Releasing, which have no major studio affiliation.

Penalties for violating the rule have not been publicly spelled out. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was not involved in the debate over the measure, and has not taken a position on the issue.

The free tapes, known in the industry as "screeners," are not just a popular perk. The makers of two recent Oscar winners -- "The Pianist" and "Monster's Ball" -- say screeners may have meant the difference between victory and defeat.

The free movies can be sent to as many as 32,000 voters who decide the Oscars and every other trophy -- from the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. to the Writers Guild of America.

But with illegal copies of screeners turning up on the Internet and in sidewalk bazaars around the globe, piracy fears for now have trumped marketing needs.

The ban cuts both ways for several companies. For example, anti-piracy advocate Peter Chernin was among the plan's earliest supporters. But Chernin's News Corp. owns not only 20th Century Fox but also art-house unit Fox Searchlight. And Searchlight's films "Thirteen" and "In America" are among the films that could be most hurt by the rule come awards time. (Adding a touch of irony, such films are considered far less likely to be pirated than major releases such as "S.W.A.T.")

Still, the industry's big players were willing to make the trade-off, putting aside the pursuit of awards to combat what Hollywood considers the greatest threat to its future profits.

"Wherever I can find a piracy hole in the dike, I have to put a cork in it," said the MPAA's president and chief executive, Jack Valenti, who is trying to prevent the movie industry from suffering the business-crippling thievery that has devastated record labels. Valenti has testified repeatedly about the high toll of movie piracy, and in late July, the MPAA launched an anti-piracy campaign that includes education and public service announcements.

"I will miss the screeners," said Robert Ellis Miller, a director and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "But I can't blame the studios. I blame the pirates."

Because Hollywood thrives on self-entitlement, the news is particularly painful for the thousands of well-heeled industry types who crave the free movies as much as private jets and assigned parking.

"It did become kind of a joke," said director Paul Mazursky ("Down and Out in Beverly Hills"). "We would kid each other and say, 'Oh, I got such-and-such movies from the studio. Did you?' And the others would say, 'Oh no, I didn't get those.' "

Said DreamWorks SKG marketing chief Terry Press: "Academy members are just going to have to find some other way to be popular this Christmas."

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