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Studios' Art-House Execs Seek to Block Ban on 'Screeners'

October 02, 2003|Lorenza Munoz and John Horn | Times Staff Writers

Executives of the art-house divisions of the major film studios met in Manhattan on Wednesday, seeking to derail a ban on sending out DVDs and videotapes to Hollywood decision-makers for awards consideration.

The ban, announced Tuesday by the trade group representing the seven major studios, prevents smaller, low-budget films and the talent behind them from getting the recognition they need to succeed, critics say.

"This could be disastrous," said Ted Hope, producer of the film "American Splendor" and a member of the Independent Feature Project/New York. "Not a single specialized release will be marketed effectively this year. It's so frustrating."

The movies, known as screeners, are sent out in the fall and winter in hopes of winning support for Oscars and other awards.

The ban was needed to combat film piracy and will not be rescinded, Motion Picture Assn. of America President Jack Valenti said Wednesday. Of the 68 films sent out last year by the studios, he said, 34 were illegally copied and distributed around the world.

"My mission is to keep movies from being pirated," Valenti said. "I have no choice."

The ban applies to the seven major film studios that comprise the MPAA and their art-house divisions, but not production companies without a major studio affiliation.

Angered by the ban, executives from the art-house units of six of the seven MPAA studios -- Miramax, Fine Line Features, Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics, United Artists and Paramount Classics -- met either in person or via teleconference at Manhattan's Four Seasons hotel to strategize on getting the ban rescinded for the coming awards season, a participant said.

Over the next few days, the executives will hammer out alternative solutions, including anti-piracy methods such as "watermarking" the DVDs and tapes.

Watermarks helped Vivendi Universal Entertainment find and prosecute the 24-year-old insurance underwriter who posted a preliminary version of "The Hulk" on the Internet.

Executives at Oregon-based Digimarc Corp., which developed video watermarking technology, said the cost of adding the markers would be insignificant.

"The solution is ready, and it's been thoroughly tested," said Chief Executive Bruce Davis.

But Valenti said watermarking only provides a method of tracking down culprits. He also said any rebellion by art-house divisions was "an internal problem."

The Screen Actors Guild and critics groups issued statements Wednesday criticizing the ban.

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Times staff writer Jon Healey contributed to this report.

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