Movie Article

Letter Boxing

MPAA ignores protest by 140 directors over Oscar ban. Despite a petition by Hollywood's top filmmakers, the MPAA refuses to back down and allow Oscar screener videos

The latest group to chime in as part of the relentless protest against the Motion Picture Association of America's ban on Oscar-season screener videos for awards voters consists of 142 of the most prestigious names in film. The ad hoc group of directors, including some of the top filmmakers from Hollywood, the independent community, and overseas, signed an open letter to the MPAA, printed Friday in Variety, protesting the ban for its anticipated harm to sparsely-distributed independent films, which depend on the advance video copies to generate awards buzz and box-office heat.

Nonetheless, the MPAA did not seem to be cowed by the John Hancocks of such heavy hitters as Francis Ford Coppola, Nora Ephron, Jodie Foster, Barry Levinson, Sydney Pollack, Sam Raimi, Robert Redford, and Martin Scorsese, and it appeared that the ban would remain in place.

Nearly two weeks ago, MPAA chief Jack Valenti announced the ban as an attempt to thwart piracy. Nonetheless, the move has received almost universal complaint within the industry, from the studio-owned quasi-independent studios whose movies are most affected by the ban (and which have cleaned up at the Oscars in recent years), to the truly independent companies who aren't MPAA members (and could still send out screeners) but still fear the ban's chilling effect on riskier films, to movie critics groups, to even the Academy. (About the only organizations that support the ban are the major studios, whose blockbusters may not be Oscar material but are the most likely targets of pirates.)

Friday's letter added to the chorus of protest, speaking up for movies that rely on screeners to reach voters who may not get to see them in theaters. ''The MPAA decision to ban screeners irreparably damages the chances of such films: films that already have a difficult enough time finding financing and distribution,'' the letter said. "As creative artists, we stand up for these films and oppose the MPAA's creation of an unwarranted obstacle to their reaching the audience they deserve -- and of course require, in order to exist.''

Despite the impressive names on the letter -- other signers included Pedro Almodovar, Robert Altman, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Boorman, Joel Coen, Sofia Coppola, David Cronenberg, Frank Darabont, Jonathan Demme, Terry Gilliam, Lasse Hallstrom, James Ivory, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Jonze, Mike Leigh, Richard Linklater, David Lynch, David Mamet, Mira Nair, John Waters, and Terry Zwigoff -- Valenti appeared unwilling to back down. Although he participated in a conference call with art-film distribution executives last week, at which compromise proposals were floated (like sending out individually numbered VHS screeners instead of easier-to-copy DVDs), the MPAA issued a statement in response to the group letter, stating that the Valenti ''welcomes the exchange of thoughts and ideas on the critical issue of combating piracy. That said, the screener policy remains as it was originally announced.''

The signatories, who include many members of the Academy, may have only one opportunity to place their clout behind their opposition to the ban: their Oscar ballots. Last week, Academy president Frank Pierson said the ban was so distressing to some members that they planned to vote against big-studio films on principle. ''It's just plain wrong,'' Altman said of the ban, in an interview with Newsweek. ''I think you’ll see a boycott of the Academy Awards.''

Originally posted Oct 13, 2003