''To change the rules this late in the game is...cutting independent movies off at the knees,'' says Christine Vachon, producer of Far From Heaven and Boys Don't Cry. And while piracy fears may have motivated studio chiefs to support the ban, the movies most hurt by the ban are the very ones least likely to need protection from piracy. Says producer Ted Hope, who was relying on screeners to push American Splendor: ''Are people on the streets of Japan desperate for the next Paul Giamatti movie?'' According to Valenti, you never know: ''My antipiracy department experts saw that of the 68 titles sent out, 34 were pirated, and all of them were traced back to screeners,'' he says. ''So I am confronted by the absolute evidence.''
But is stopping piracy worth the price? ''I think this is going to hurt our culture,'' Hope says. ''What Valenti is really saying is he wants Halle Berry to only do X2. Like the music industry, we'll have uniform boy-band movies.'' While Valenti says there are no other viable options, filmmakers point to technology such as watermarking that limits piracy, or creating a lending library. Specialty films could be released in the early part of the year, making them available on video in the fall -- leaving filmgoers nothing but big-budget fare post-February. For now, filmmakers are scrambling to come up with immediate fixes. Companies like Lions Gate, which has Girl With a Pearl Earring, and Newmarket, which released Whale Rider, are not part of the MPAA and therefore not obligated to uphold the ban (and may well benefit this year, if theirs are the only screeners to go out). Fox Searchlight, which was counting on DVD screeners for its Jim Sheridan film In America, is holding sneak previews for the public (tickets are free for Oscar members). ''You could try to overcome [the issue] with money, but the margins on these movies are pretty slim anyway,'' says Searchlight president Peter Rice. ''We have to put all of our energy into getting people to see the movie.''
And what we'll see is precisely what's at stake -- even for those who crave nothing but popcorn pizzazz. As Hope points out, ''Specialized films have given new careers to actors because they can show what they're capable of.'' So when you're lining up next year to see Halle Berry in Catwoman, just remember: It's in no small part thanks to Monster's Ball that she has those claws.
(Additional reporting by Missy Schwartz and Michelle Kung)