Art vs. commerce dilemma engulfs Hollywood in fight over video “screeners”

Is video piracy a greater threat to a producer’s bottom line than a reduced chance of winning an Oscar? In other words, is protecting a media asset against illicit copying more important than enhancing the value of that asset through massive acclaim and publicity? The industry may find out soon in a heated debate now dividing many content owners in Hollywood.

When the Motion Picture Association of America recently announced that major studios would no longer send out copies of new movies in advance of the Academy Awards season, the stated reason was to reduce movie piracy.

Traditionally, these copies of new movies on DVD, known as “screeners,” have been distributed to players in the movie industry who vote on Oscar nominees. With so many movies to see, video screeners allow voters to watch the films at home instead of going to a theater or a screening room.

The new ban on screeners, contends Jack Valenti, president and chief executive of the Motion Picture Association, is essential to reduce “digital thievery.” Of 68 titles that were sent out by movie studios during the award season last year, 34 of them either showed up illegally on street corners or were traded on the Internet, Valenti claims.

However, independents and small studios, even those owned by major studios, are contending there’s more to the screener ban than meets the eye. Films with small budgets and no stars could have trouble receiving Academy Award nominations, because voters, some of them older, could decide not to go to theaters and would therefore never see such movies.

The screener ban has caused executives at some independent companies to say privately that the studios are less interested in the piracy issue than in undercutting independent film companies who have consistently won Oscars in recent years.

“Artistic accomplishments in film should not be compromised in an effort to protect the interests of the major studios,” Norman Jewison, director of films like Moonstruck and The Hurricane, wrote last week in a letter to Valenti, complaining of the screener ban.

Valenti admits the decision to seek a ban on screeners was made as little as three weeks ago. Many in the motion picture were caught unaware of the new policy and now see the move as too hasty. Whether or not it will be changed is a question that hangs heavy over the motion picture industry as it faces awards season.

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