Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
October 17, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Think back over the last few Academy Award ceremonies, and chances are you remember two moments: Halle Berry’s tearful, shocked acceptance in 2002 for Best Actress in Monster’s Ball, and this past year, Adrien Brody’s jubilant lip-lock with the actress when he — seeming equally stunned — accepted Best Actor for The Pianist.

Such moments remind us why we bother slogging through three-plus hours of damp, overproduced fawning, but these surprise victories have a far greater significance — they can ensure that a larger audience will see the honored (but not widely distributed) movies.

This is why MPAA chief Jack Valenti’s recent decision to ban DVD screeners (in order, he says, to help stop piracy, an issue Hollywood has been wringing its hands over for years) reverberates beyond this Oscar season. In the short term, the new policy is likely to hurt such critically acclaimed movies as American Splendor, Lost in Translation, Pieces of April, and The Station Agent. But more alarmingly, the new directive could prevent such films from being made in the first place.

For most independent filmmakers, getting a project financed hinges on convincing investors of its Oscar potential. Producer John Penotti, whose GreeneStreet Films coproduced In the Bedroom (which won Sissy Spacek a Best Actress nomination in 2002), is now backing Yes, starring Joan Allen and Sam Neill. When he made the decision to finance the film, anticipating an Oscar-worthy movie was ”built into our plan.” Now, as he prepares to go to distributors, ”I have a film that is going to potentially suffer drastically.”

A little more than a decade ago (and before screeners), Oscar’s main purpose seemed to be to honor major studios. But as Miramax championed the indie revolution and studios churned out increasingly unworthy event films, Oscar night has gone up for grabs. Last February, 23 of the 40 major nominations — for writing, directing, acting, and Best Picture — went to indies. (Warner Bros., which has been active in the antipiracy movement, has had only two films, The Green Mile and Training Day, nominated in any of those categories in the last five years.) This season, there’s even more at stake for the majors: Warner Bros., like EW, a Time Warner company, has the Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai; New Line, also a Time Warner subsidiary, is preparing to unspool its third Lord of the Rings; Disney has The Alamo; and Fox, Universal, and Miramax have cofinanced Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe. To see these movies, all voters need to do is show up at their local cineplexes.

But many independent movies open on only a few screens and then pray for Oscar heat to propel them wider. Valenti has called Oscar voters ”lazy” if they don’t make it to a theater, but as one Academy member points out, ”I don’t live in L.A., and sometimes we don’t get the smaller films.” (This particular lazybones happens to be Clint Eastwood.) The Academy’s July 2002 decision to move the ceremony up three weeks only makes the situation more dire, since films released at the tail end of the year (The Pianist opened on six screens Dec. 27) to qualify for Oscar consideration now have only days to get voters’ attention (ballots are due Jan. 17).

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