On Dec. 5, Gwyneth Paltrow got an unexpected wedding gift when a U.S. district court issued a decision that could enhance her Oscar prospects. Judge Michael Mukasey nullified a ban on awards screeners that he concluded put art-house films (like Paltrow's Sylvia) at a disadvantage to studio movies. Established in September, the ban was an attempt by the Motion Picture Association of America to curb piracy, but the indie world viewed it as a death knell. Prominent critics' groups in L.A. and Chicago canceled their annual awards in protest. (After Mukasey's ruling, the L.A. group reinstated this year's awards.)
''Screeners were always the great equalizer,'' says Lions Gate Entertainment president Tom Ortenberg, whose Monster's Ball seemed to benefit from them two years ago: Six weeks into its release, the film had earned less than $2 million, but after Halle Berry's Best Actress nom (and win), the film went on to gross more than $30 million. ''We could never take out as many ads or book as many screenings or pay $10,000 a day for hair and makeup [for celeb appearances like] the major studios can,'' Ortenberg continues. ''But we ship a screener as easily and as cheaply as a major studio can.''
While the MPAA's ban never applied to true indie companies -- those like Lions Gate (Girl With a Pearl Earring) or Newmarket (Monster, Whale Rider) unaffiliated with larger studios -- many of the most prominent independent films are produced and distributed by such studio boutique divisions as Fox Searchlight, Focus Features (Universal), and Sony Pictures Classics. It's a setup that's resulted in strategic differences within companies: Universal Studios, say, might not want to send screeners to every voting body, but Focus certainly does. Although Judge Mukasey's ruling gives all distributors the green light to start shipping screeners to voters for the Golden Globes or the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, some studios intend to stick with the ban.
Disney (Finding Nemo), Warner Bros. (The Last Samurai), and Universal (Seabiscuit) are sending screeners to Oscar voters only, while Sony (Big Fish) and Fox (Master and Commander) are taking advantage of the looser rules and mailing copies to critics' groups and, most pressingly, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, whose Golden Globes nomination deadline is Dec. 15. Meanwhile, Universal's Focus has sent select groups copies of Lost in Translation, Sylvia, and 21 Grams, while Fox Searchlight is mailing out In America.
In previous years, voters chose VHS or DVD copies, but most of this year's screeners are on tape, so they'll be harder to pirate. ''That's a good thing that's come out of this whole action,'' says producer Ted Hope (21 Grams, American Splendor), who testified in court. ''Splendor is now available [illegally] as a result of the video-retail promotional screeners that were sent on DVD. That's what got bootlegged. That's what the MPAA should crack down on.'' But Lions Gate and Newmarket still sent out DVDs. ''We care about piracy as much as everybody else does,'' says Ortenberg. ''What we do want is for our films to be seen in the best manner possible. Right now that's DVD.''