"What are the stakes? They are actually nothing short of artistic freedom, artists' careers, free enterprise, democracy and even the betterment of individuals and society that are empowered by movies. One could even say the future of certain individuals, families, communities, our country and even the planet have been helped by certain movies." -- From an open letter, published in October, on the Web site www.filmthreat.com, from Jeff Dowd to Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, arguing against the MPAA's ban on distributing "screeners"
The United States Supreme Court today upheld a law that makes it illegal not to see movies that are "legitimate contenders" for an Academy Award, including period pieces, morose Gwyneth Paltrow weepies, sequels, prequels and any movie in which an actor had to lose or gain more than 50 pounds or played a prostitute.
The new law was born of a controversy some 20 years ago, when during the 2003 Oscar season the Motion Picture Assn. of America, fearing a wave of piracy, banned the widespread distribution of so-called academy "screeners," the free DVDs and videos of Oscar-contending films sent out to everyone and their brother in the entertainment industry. That ban touched off a debate in Hollywood in which it was determined that Oscars are not only important, but movies are in fact more powerful than Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Oprah or any other religion you could think of.
"I am deeply gratified that the highest court in the land has recognized the vital role in our national identity and security that movies play," President Cruise said in a statement released by the White House. "Movies, I think it goes without saying, improve lives. And previews, while they may not improve our lives in and of themselves, do inform us what movies are coming soon that will improve our lives in the future."
In their near-unanimous majority opinion, the justices affirmed Hollywood's contention that it is literally criminal not to see every movie nominated for an Oscar in the categories of best picture, best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress, best director, best original screenplay, best adapted screenplay and best cinematography (the court did strike the best original score category from the law). The justices left off deciding whether it should also be illegal not to see movies with the following designations: "a slasher film, but with a sense of humor"; "two thumbs up!"; "Kidman at her radiant best!" and "a thrill ride that just doesn't stop!"
Under the new law, citizens who have not seen Oscar-contending films are required to see them within 30 days or risk expulsion from the country. Opponents of the new law have all along warned that it would create massive headaches at the nation's borders, as scores of people who haven't seen Oscar contenders are sent into Canada and Mexico to think about their crimes.
Not everyone hailed the new law. "What's next, jail time if you can't name who won the Golden Globe for best supporting actress in a musical or comedy?" Jay Tortorelli, who argued the defense's case before the justices, said outside the courthouse. Tortorelli was representing Sharon Copley, a Missouri paralegal who was arrested outside a Loews multiplex when she asked for her $26.50 admission back after falling asleep during the critically acclaimed "Katie Couric: A Life," in which Renee Zellweger plays a media prostitute.
The sweeping changes that have occurred in the 20 years since the MPAA screener ban have made the tumultuous fall of 2003 seem a footnote. But back then, the screener ban led to howls of protest in Hollywood, which were followed by lunch, and sometimes dinner. The meals led to the formation, in 2006, of the political action group Movies! Movies! Movies!, which a year later morphed into a full-fledged political party, the Movie Party, which described itself as a bipartisan collection of people who believe that "movies and the people who star in them and make them and finance them and publicize them are doing God's work, and in fact are working harder than God did, because God rested on the seventh day while movie people often spend their Sundays on location or catching up on their Entertainment Weekly reading."
Immediately, the Movie Party became the most powerful fund-raising force in the history of American politics. Currently, there is a petition circulating to have its first chairman, Harvey Weinstein, added to Mt. Rushmore. But first things first.
Paul Brownfield can be contacted at