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MPAA Agrees to Soften Ban on 'Screeners'

Tentative deal involving distribution of films to Oscar voters comes after protests by studios and others. It is opposed by the Screen Actors Guild.

October 22, 2003|Lorenza Munoz and John Horn | Times Staff Writers

The Motion Picture Assn. of America tentatively agreed Tuesday to reverse part of its ban on the free DVDs and videocassettes that have long gone to voters who decide the Oscars, but the compromise deal immediately met with resistance from one of Hollywood's biggest labor unions.

The MPAA, which represents the seven major studios, took the step after three weeks of protests from filmmakers, independent studios, movie critics and others. For smaller films in particular, the free movies, known as screeners, are a crucial part of their push for Oscars and other awards.

Under the MPAA's tentative pact with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, movie studios would be allowed to send numbered, encoded videocassettes to the approximately 6,000 Oscar voters, according to people familiar with the deal. That is opposed by the Screen Actors Guild.

Still to be decided by the MPAA and the academy is whether studios can also send low-resolution DVDs -- from which pirates have more difficulty making clean copies -- to academy members, these people said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
"Screeners" -- An article in Wednesday's Business section about distribution of DVDs and videos to Academy Awards voters incorrectly stated the title of studio executive Tom Rothman. Rothman is co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, not co-president.

Academy Awards voters who knowingly allow their cassettes to be pirated could be expelled from the academy, according to the tentative agreement.

But other awards voters from the major Hollywood guilds, including SAG, would be prohibited from receiving any screeners at all, even though SAG, the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America all give out prominent awards of their own in the weeks preceding the Oscars.

Details of the compromise were widely circulated in the industry Tuesday. The MPAA declined to comment.

Although the DGA and the WGA appeared willing to support the MPAA deal, SAG did not, saying it wanted screeners for the several thousands members of its awards nominating committee.

Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox had been the ban's staunchest supporters, with Fox Co-President Tom Rothman writing a long commentary in Variety supporting it. Warner Bros. indicated Tuesday that it would not mail screeners of its "The Matrix Revolutions" and "The Last Samurai," the latter of which is expected to attract significant awards attention.

But even though Warner stuck with its pro-ban policy, sources at Fox said that studio had changed course. Fox was planning to send to academy members screeners of its upcoming Peter Weir adventure "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," another awards contender.

The MPAA imposed the DVD and video ban Sept. 30, saying it was an effort to crack down on piracy. The movie industry wants to avoid the kind of massive pirating problems that have beset the record industry. And sending out tens of thousands of screeners during awards season has made it difficult for the industry to push for tougher anti-piracy sanctions in Washington.

But the ban pitted studios against their own specialized film units, scrambled the budgets for award season campaigning and stoked fears among independent filmmakers that the ban was an attempt by the major studios to squash them and reclaim the awards attention that art house divisions have recently been grabbing.

Those specialized units, such as Vivendi Universal's Focus Features and Sony Corp.'s Sony Pictures Classics, rely on screeners to help generate support for the smaller movies, such as "The Pianist" and "Talk to Her," which have come to dominate the Oscars in recent years.

Truly independent studios such as Lions Gate Films Inc. and Newmarket Films are not members of the MPAA and not bound by its rules. Both of those companies are expected to send out screeners.

SAG's refusal to endorse the MPAA-academy compromise has stalled negotiations. If the MPAA were to make an exception for SAG awards voters, it would have to do so for the countless other organizations that bestow honors on films. And sources said Tuesday that the studios wouldn't allow even limited screeners for any others other than those in the academy.

Times staff writer Jon Healy contributed to this report.

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