Judge blocks screener ban to awards voters

A federal court has overturned the ban by Hollywood’s major motion picture studios on screener videos for non-Oscar movie awards voters.

U.S. District Judge Michael B. Mukasey in New York handed a major victory to independent film producers, granting a temporary restraining order against the ban, which is enforced by the Motion Picture Association of America.

The major movie studios had claimed the ban of movie videos was critical to stop movie piracy. But independent producers argued that the ban limited awards voters’ exposure to smaller, non-studio movies — hurting their chances for the various awards that lead to bigger box-office receipts.

At first the ban was total. Then, on Oct. 23, it was modified to allow the 5600 voters for the Academy Awards, the industry’s most important awards, to receive advance copies of movies nominated for awards in videotape form (no DVDs).

But independent producers said they were still harmed by the modified policy because the smaller awards, handed out in the fall and winter, are widely considered to affect which movies Oscar voters consider.

The judge said he was swayed by testimony that showed awards are critical to the success of smaller films, which do not have the large advertising budget of major studios. “Plaintiffs have shown they are at risk of loss of revenue as a result of the screener ban,” the judge said.

Ted Hope, an independent producer, told the Associated Press that the ruling was a victory for movie fans because it would allow smaller-budget pictures to get the acclaim they deserve, and therefore wider release.

According to a statement by president Jack Valenti, the Motion Picture Association, “will appeal because the impact and growing threat of piracy is real and must be addressed wherever it appears.”

Mukasey heard a full day of testimony in the case, including that of Valenti, who said the ban was justified and important. “Piracy has become a malignant fungus on the face of our industry, and it’s becoming more virulent as we go along,” Valenti said.

The ban also would force voters for some movie awards to attend one-time-only screenings or see movies in theaters, rather than watching at home on their own time. Smaller movie studios said that meant their films were less likely to be considered for awards.

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