Hearing set on 'screener' injunction

Times Staff Writer

A federal judge on Wednesday refused to grant an immediate injunction to a coalition of independent filmmakers seeking to reverse an industry ban on sending video copies to groups whose awards recognition can increase public exposure and profits. U.S. District Court Judge Michael B. Mukasey ordered witnesses to appear at a hearing next Wednesday and said he would announce his decision after the testimony.

He also criticized the filmmakers for waiting weeks to seek the restraining order. "If you want equitable relief, why not act promptly?" Mukasey asked, noting the suit was filed two days before Thanksgiving. "You waited a month and a half."

The Motion Picture Assn. of America, representing the major studios, announced the prohibition Sept. 30, citing concern that the videocassettes and DVDs known as "screeners" would be pirated throughout the world.

"This case is about piracy," MPAA lawyer Richard Cooper said. He cited concerns of a repeat of piracy's "catastrophic" effects on the music industry.

"I believe the claim of piracy is a red herring," countered Gregory L. Curtner, representing the independent filmmakers. He accused the MPAA of seeking to use the piracy issue to protect the major studios' big-budget films and to erect barriers against fair competition from small independent producers, whose success at the Oscars and other awards has grown.

The coalition of filmmakers claims they will face "irreparable harm" because their films will not be promoted effectively or seen widely enough for fair consideration by judges during this year's awards season. The result, producers argue, could chill financing of independent films and "further entrench the shared monopoly power enjoyed by major studios."

"The awards season is a pivotal marketing time for independent film producers," the suit says. "It is the prospect of a successful awards season that has enabled many successful movies to be financed and distributed."

On Oct. 23, the MPAA modified the ban to allow screeners to be sent to about 5,800 Academy Award voters, but not to those in contests such as the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards.

In what could be a preview of next week, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, president of New York-based Antidote Films, sparred with the MPAA's Simon Barsky after Mukasey left the courtroom. "This doesn't stop piracy. This stops independent filmmaking," Levy-Hinte said.

"Right now, there are holes in the bottom of the boat," Barsky said. "My job ... is to make sure the boat doesn't sink."

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