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Alternatives to 'Screeners' Ban Proposed

On a conference call with the MPAA, critics of the ban say it will hurt Oscar prospects of smaller movies.

October 09, 2003|Lorenza Munoz and John Horn | Times Staff Writers

After a weeklong barrage of complaints over its prohibition of awards season DVDs and videocassettes, the Motion Picture Assn. of America granted its fiercest critics an audience Wednesday, but made no promises about rescinding its controversial ban.

In a one-hour conference call, MPAA President Jack Valenti listened as three representatives of the Independent Working Group, which includes four studio-owned specialty film units, explained how the ban would unfairly punish smaller movies that have come to dominate the Academy Awards.

Participants in the 10 a.m. call included James Schamus, co-president of Vivendi Universal's Focus Features; Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Entertainment's Sony Pictures Classics; and Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Walt Disney Co.'s Miramax Films, according to people familiar with the discussion

The ad-hoc group, which also includes MGM's United Artists, proposed several alternatives to the ban. United Artists didn't join the call.

One proposal was to send out piracy-protected tapes instead of DVDs, which the MPAA says are pirated soon after they are distributed.

Another alternative was a library-like procedure, whereby recipients would sign out videos and then return them to the studios.

The meeting was "very productive, honest, open and sincere," said the group's spokeswoman, Donna Daniels.

Valenti told the group he might have a response as early as today. The MPAA president was not available for comment Wednesday.

Anti-piracy experts were skeptical about some of the proposals. They said there was no point in encrypting a conventional VHS tape because today's VCRs can't play the coded tapes. Even if more expensive digital players were used to decrypt the tapes, determined pirates could capture the unscrambled images.

Wednesday's conference call comes after Valenti received a letter Friday from the independent film group.

"Does the MPAA have reliable data on just what contribution to the current piracy problem academy screeners represent?" the letter asked.

Talent agents, directors, critics groups, exhibitors, independent distributors, the Hollywood Foreign Press and such independent filmmaker groups as the Independent Feature Project and the American Film Marketing Assn. have called for the MPAA to repeal the ban.

Critics say the ban will hurt the Oscar prospects of smaller, low-budget movies. To partially offset the disadvantage posed by the screener ban, studios such as News Corp.'s Fox Searchlight and the privately held DreamWorks SKG have begun screening their Oscar hopefuls in theaters around Los Angeles long before the films' scheduled release dates.

Valenti has said that 34 titles of last year's 68 screeners were pirated, but he has declined to identify them.

Critics say the purpose of the ban is to prevent the pirating of movies such as "S.W.A.T." and "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." Such commercial hits are often distributed for awards consideration, but are unlikely to be nominated for major awards.

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Times staff writers Claudia Eller and Jon Healey contributed to this report.

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