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New 'Screener' Policy Fails to Quiet Valenti's Critics

MPAA chief says he 'felt a sense of despair' over the feud. SAG says its exclusion from free tapes is unwarranted.

October 24, 2003|Lorenza Munoz and John Horn | Times Staff Writers

Jack Valenti was at a loss. Ever since the president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America announced a ban on free awards-seasons videos, he had been pilloried by filmmakers, producers and movie critics.

Friends were calling him at home. Nearing retirement, the veteran political operative found himself at the center of a bitter Hollywood family feud. "The outcries and the anguish from all of my friends in the industry made me sit down one night and say, 'Is there a middle way?' " he recalled.

The answer appeared to be no. If he backed out of the ban, announced late last month as a measure to fend off movie piracy, he would look weak. But if he stood fast, he risked the enduring enmity of many in the business he was supposed to represent.

Then a potential solution appeared: Frank Pierson, the president of the organization that presents the Oscars, suggested Valenti lift the ban for Academy Awards voters only.

And Thursday, after several days of spirited negotiations, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the MPAA announced that they had done just that.

In a widely anticipated compromise, the academy's approximately 6,000 members will be allowed to receive videocassettes -- though not DVDs -- of Oscar-eligible movies, as long as members pledge not to pass the freebies, known as screeners, along to friends or relatives or anyone else. Studios will encode each tape with identifying marks to track any pirated copies. And if a pirated screener is found to be connected to an Oscar voter, that member could be expelled from the academy.

But the agreement, billed as a one-year experiment, does not appear to have ended Valenti's problems.

It was condemned by some because the thousands of people who vote on other film honors -- including those who decide the Golden Globes -- still won't receive screeners. Valenti was personally denounced by the Screen Actors Guild.

"The implication of your action is that you regard Screen Actors Guild members as less trustworthy than academy members," SAG President Melissa Gilbert and Executive Director A. Robert Pisano said in a letter to Valenti on Thursday. "We suggest that this discrimination is arbitrary and born of expediency rather than reason."

In a way, the fight over the screeners has become a referendum on the 82-year-old Valenti's Hollywood power. Rather than have the ban be remembered as a decisive blow against piracy, it has become a public relations disaster.

Valenti said in an interview Thursday that he was exhausted by three weeks of nonstop railing against the ban.

"I felt a sense of despair," Valenti said. He refused to characterize the screener reversal as a defeat. "I've been in politics all my life. Nothing is set in stone."

But many industry observers said Valenti suffered a big political black eye.

"What happened here is that Jack got caught not doing his homework," said one veteran insider who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"He got blindsided, and he's taking the bullet for getting blindsided."

People who wanted the ban lifted in its entirety said the settlement hardly went far enough.

"You are creating this class system of the haves and have-nots which compromises the independent film community," said Dawn Hudson, head of Independent Feature Project Los Angeles, an organization that helped coordinate complaints among independent filmmakers against the ban. "You [cannot] send these out to the critics? That is our bread and butter."

The MPAA announced the ban Sept. 30, saying it was necessary to combat the piracy it estimates costs the film studios more than $3 billion annually.

The seven studios that make up the MPAA wildly underestimated the anger the ban would generate. Several of the studios' own specialized film divisions said they believed it was a power grab by their bosses to reclaim the Oscars, which in recent years have bestowed top honors on a number of art films.

Representatives of some of the major studios said they chose to exempt Oscar voters from the ban for three reasons: First, nearly every Hollywood craft is represented within the academy. Second, many academy members are traveling during the holidays for work or pleasure and thus are unable to see movies that might be playing in only a few Los Angeles theaters. Third, only the academy has the power to punish scofflaws with expulsion.

Other awards groups weren't buying that logic.

Critics organizations, which hand out their trophies well before the Oscars, often can help set the awards agenda by elevating certain films. Those organizations have complained that without free screeners, they won't be able to see all of the eligible films. The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. announced last weekend that it was canceling its annual awards in protest of the screener ban.

"What is to prevent the same contracts from being negotiated with the critics groups?" said Peter Rainer, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, which opposes the ban. "The MPAA has not explored the real ways in which to combat piracy."

Though SAG blasted the compromise, the agreement was applauded by many academy members; the Writers Guild of America, West; the Directors Guild of America; and even some critics of the original ban.

Valenti, who has been at the helm of the MPAA for 37 years, said he was most moved when directors he considered friends, such as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Norman Jewison, let him know they did not support the ban.

Said Jewison on Thursday: "I think what they have done is right. I'm pleased. It takes some courage to reverse yourself -- or to change an edict when you have a lot of pressure on you like that."

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