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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Screeners: Behind the ban

October 07, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

JACK VALENTI is no stranger to the exercise of raw political power. After all, the Motion Picture Assn. of America chief began in Washington as an aide to President Lyndon Johnson. And power, as in big-time studio clout, is what's really behind last week's hotly debated decision to ban the widespread dissemination of Oscar screeners as a way to stem the tide of digital piracy.

The MPAA has served as a whipping boy for the unpopular edict, which independent filmmakers say will undermine the Oscar chances of edgier art films. As Valenti told one reporter last week, "If there's a villain in the piece, it's me." But trust me, when a shrewd operator like Jack Valenti goes out of his way to take the blame for something, the one thing you can be sure of is that he's covering for someone else. When you make $1 million a year, you get paid to take the heat.

It's an open secret in Hollywood that the Oscar screener ban was instigated by Warner Bros. Chief Executive Barry Meyer, a man of many talents but not someone you'd bet the house on if he were on "Jeopardy" trying to answer the question: "Name any two movies Ang Lee made before 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' " Put simply: Time Warner has money on its mind, not Oscars. As Meyer said last year, the conglomerate is "looking to extend our properties over multiple platforms," not exactly a rallying cry for artistic quality. (How many Oscar nominations did Warner have last year? Hint: It starts with a zero.)

Time Warner's likely Oscar contenders -- "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," "The Matrix Revolutions" and "The Last Samurai" -- are costly blockbusters, prime targets for bootleggers. Piracy is certainly the key reason the company spearheaded the ban on the distribution of videocassette and DVD screeners of movies for award consideration. It's also why Warner and 20th Century Fox, the industry's other leading anti-piracy advocate, were happy to let Valenti endure a week of bad publicity for throwing a monkey wrench into the Oscar race.

The decision was rushed through with such haste and stealth that two studio chairmen I spoke to last week acknowledged that they hadn't been informed of the edict until the deal was virtually done. Valenti simply did the arm-twisting, though some top executives, in particular Sony's Howard Stringer, were vehemently opposed to the idea. If Meyer has other motives, he's keeping them to himself; rather than take my calls, he issued a bland statement, saying, "piracy is a life and death issue for the movie business."

Despite the weeping and moaning of indie filmmakers, the edict is not entirely about big-studio Oscar envy, though surely the big studio films will benefit most from the screener ban. The edict is about DVD profits. If a classic division's movie wins a major Oscar, it could be worth $10 million or $15 million in extra income. But if piracy puts a big dent in the DVD business, the engine that currently drives the movie business, the studios would lose untold hundreds of millions of dollars, leaving them in roughly the same shape as today's record companies -- up the creek without a paddle.

Executives muzzled

The Oscar screener edict is simply the latest salvo in the epic battle between media conglomerates, who've been lobbying Washington for more copyright and piracy protection, and tech companies, who've been fighting fiercely to protect consumers' private free use of music and movies. Only this time the war is squarely within the same family, with the studio chief executives opting for piracy protection while their classics divisions lobby for as much open access to their movies as possible. In a year in which DVD sales and rentals jumped a staggering 62%, guess which side carries the biggest stick?

Money talks, which is why the studios have taken extraordinary steps to silence the chief executives of their classics divisions. Though the executives are incensed by the edict, they've been so thoroughly muzzled that even after they met last week for an urgent parley, it would've been easier to find an Iraqi weapon of mass destruction than get one of them on the phone for a quote. (It speaks volumes that every classics division was represented except for Fox Searchlight and Warner's Independent Pictures, subsidiaries of the two most vociferous anti-piracy studios.)

Imagine how dire the consequences must be if even Miramax's voluble Harvey Weinstein, who normally would leap out of a 40-story building if Michael Eisner told him not to, and considers it sport to thumb his nose at Disney directives, hasn't uttered a peep of public protest.

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