Independent Filmmaker Groups File Suit to Block 'Screener' Ban

Times Staff Writer

Organizations representing leading independent filmmakers in Los Angeles and New York on Monday filed an antitrust lawsuit against the Motion Picture Assn. of America, claiming that the trade association's recent ban on Hollywood awards season "screeners" is the result of a conspiracy among the big studios to lessen competition and squeeze out smaller players.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York on behalf of the Independent Feature Project New York, Independent Feature Project Los Angeles and a dozen independent production companies, seeks a temporary restraining order on the screener ban. The suit argues that the ban, imposed by the MPAA on behalf of the seven major studios Oct. 1, unfairly affects smaller, so-called specialized films that benefit tremendously from the circulation of the movie screeners to critics' groups and other industry organizations.

The lawsuit was filed after a series of conference calls among executives of the studio-based specialized divisions, independent companies and MPAA President Jack Valenti failed to produce a compromise.

Executives for several of the studio art house divisions, while declining to speak publicly, said they were aware the suit was proceeding, and that it had their tacit support.

A hearing is set for Wednesday in New York.

"We worked long and hard to try to get this ban reversed, but as a last resort we are filing this complaint in court," said Dawn Hudson, executive director of Independent Feature Project Los Angeles, which hosts the annual Independent Spirit Awards. "It's unacceptable the damage this screener ban will do to the independent film business."

The MPAA declined to comment until its lawyers had read the entire suit, but spokesman Rich Taylor said it seemed to miss the point of the ban. "It does seem it ignores the whole basis for the screener ban, which was to reduce piracy and help preserve the industry for films large and small," Taylor said.

The ban has outraged the independent film world as well as other groups in Hollywood, including the heads of the studios' own specialized film divisions, the Screen Actors Guild, critics, the Writers Guild of America and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which puts on the Golden Globe awards.

Stung by the ferocity of the opposition, the MPAA a month later softened the ban to allow members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to receive awards season screeners.

But that exception only "exacerbated the problem," said Gregory L. Curtner, lawyer for the plaintiffs.

The suit alleges that the MPAA "conspired with the academy to unlawfully restrict trade ... related to critics' evaluation awards events." The suit does not name the academy as a defendant.

In addition to Independent Feature Project, several production companies whose awards contenders are being marketed and distributed by the studios' specialized subsidiaries are parties to the suit. They include: Antidote Films, maker of "Thirteen," distributed by Fox Searchlight; Elemental Films, whose "Lost in Translation" is distributed by Universal's Focus Features; Robert Altman's Sandcastle 5 Productions, whose film "The Company" is being distributed by Sony Pictures Classics; and This Is That, whose "American Splendor" is distributed by Fine Line Features, a division of New Line Cinema.

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