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A decoder ring might work ...

Swashbuckling along in its Oscar-screener piracy battle, the academy considers the next obvious anti-crime tactic: free DVD players.

June 27, 2004|David Freeman | Special to The Times

DURING the run-up to last year's Oscars, the studios suspected that academy screeners -- the tapes and DVDs sent to voters -- were a source of pirated movies. It was hard to picture the staid academy as a den of piracy until it was shown that at least one member -- possibly representing the little-known clown branch -- was guilty.

After that embarrassment, it took a court order to get the screeners distributed. We had to sign documents agreeing not to let them out of our possession, but they got out anyway, lent to friends, to relatives, or for all I know, sold on the street in Rio.

To address this problem, there's now a plan to give voters special Dolby machines that will play the encrypted DVDs that will follow. Just who will pay for this adventure in crime busting is unclear, but it will surely wind up being the studios.

Just as I was contemplating this, a call came in on my fax line. It rang so persistently that I picked up. It was Ray Stark -- the premier producer of his time and a man who could see around corners when he was alive and hasn't slowed down just because he's dead. Ray didn't think much of this scheme. "No one will be able to work them. The academy is full of alter kockers" (I believe that's Latin for seniors) "who can't change their clocks. They'll never figure out these gizmos. They'll have to call their grandchildren for help."

"I think they'll work like regular DVD players."

"They'll be on EBay before the academy wakes up."

"I don't see that happening, Ray."

"Because you're blind! What about the guilds and the Foreign Press and all the other bums? You think they're going to sit still for the academy getting free machines and special DVDs while all they get are tapes? This is Jack Valenti's fault. Why do you think he's retiring? So he doesn't have to clean up another mess."

"It sounds like a plausible enough idea to me."

"You just want a free machine."

"That too, I guess." Then, as I was asking what he thought about the Writers Guild negotiations, Lew Wasserman called him on another line and he hung up on me.

*

Trolling for dollars

THE quest for financing for our Mexican movie continues. I keep asking myself, do I need to hear about each strategic move? It makes it hard to work. Still, I want every detail because agents and lawyers seem to have grown-up jobs. There's something about turning out pages of dialogue (or, in my case lately, of prose) that seems like a hobby. The big kids move around millions of dollars. I move around paragraphs and delete the occasional adverb.

Raising money turns on casting. A scholar known as a sales agent sells off pieces of the proposed movie to theater chains around the world. If they'll put up money now they can be assured of a movie or, as they so delicately call it, "product" for their theaters on some fanciful future date. The important question for these thugs is, who's going to be in it?

Their belief is, people will buy tickets to see a particular actor even if they're not sure they'll like the movie. Everyone knows that a Tom Cruise movie will have a big opening weekend. Because Senor Cruise and his fellow movie-opening stars (Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt -- you can figure out the list) rarely sign on for independent films, a lower rank of star is pursued. Money can be raised on names that few people outside the trade have heard of.

You may notice a certain lunatic absurdity in that. It leads to unlikely casting and makes actors desperate for publicity so that their names alone might get them jobs. They'll do most anything to be noticed. This does not encourage personal stability among actors. It fuels what has been called the publicity-industrial complex. And it makes me want to go back to moving those paragraphs around.

*

Words on the street

HOLLYWOOD language watch: People in the movie business use and reuse the same annoying terms. It creates a frame of reference that gives the illusion of common purpose. An evergreen: "The industry." Usually spoken in an oracular voice. It just means the movie business. In "Adaptation," Nicolas Cage as the untalented successful screenwriter says something grand about "the industry." Then as the capable but unemployed brother he mutters, "Don't say 'industry.' " He knows it doesn't matter what it's called, but he just can't help himself.

More current is "vision" or "creative vision." It's a ponderous way of talking about what used to be called a take or an idea, as in "She has a really interesting take on the script" or "His idea for the opening is pretty good." All the vision talk sounds as if people are considering a course in ophthalmology. Finally, "journey." No character simply lives a life. It's always a journey. Sometimes I think they're talking about travel agents.

It's back to New York for me after the holiday for another go at promoting my book and chasing my play through a maze of readings and workshops, an undertaking very like studio script development. It's wearing and I don't know how useful it is, but It's All True.

*

David Freeman is a screenwriter and author, most recently of "It's All True: A Novel of Hollywood."

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