One of Hollywood’s greatest freebies -- the bonanza of DVDs and videocassettes that clogs showbiz mailboxes every awards season -- met an abrupt end Tuesday after the major studios agreed to halt their largess in the name of fighting movie piracy.
The self-imposed ban on “for your consideration” copies of current releases carries with it the promise of big changes in Oscar politics and the balance of Hollywood awards power.
Critics of the new rule say smaller films that benefited from easy, living-room exposure will suddenly be less visible than major “must-see” studio productions. A platoon of Academy Awards strategists, already facing a shortened lead-up to next year’s early Oscars broadcast, will lose a powerful marketing tool. And Hollywood’s voting elite, it appears, will have to leave the comfort of their leather-upholstered living rooms to venture into the multiplexes or crowded screening rooms that are quickly becoming booked to capacity now that the word is out.
The decision, rumored for more than a year, was hammered out in recent days, with talks among the seven major studios and their trade organization, the Motion Picture Assn. of America, concluding at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday.
But before the sun had risen on the West Coast, the plan already was being denounced -- with the studios’ very own art-house divisions as its staunchest critics.
Representatives of several of the divisions said they were organizing an emergency meeting for today in New York to consider their possible responses.
And in a signal that the ban may yet face some serious opposition, Miramax Films, recently the most consistent purveyor of Academy Award-winning films, declined to endorse the ruling, even though it is owned by Disney Co., which agreed to the ban.
The MPAA plan does not affect Hollywood’s truly independent companies, such as Lions Gate Releasing, which have no major studio affiliation.
Penalties for violating the rule have not been publicly spelled out. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was not involved in the debate over the measure, and has not taken a position on the issue.
The free tapes, known in the industry as “screeners,” are not just a popular perk. The makers of two recent Oscar winners -- “The Pianist” and “Monster’s Ball” -- say screeners may have meant the difference between victory and defeat.
The free movies can be sent to as many as 32,000 voters who decide the Oscars and every other trophy -- from the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. to the Writers Guild of America.
But with illegal copies of screeners turning up on the Internet and in sidewalk bazaars around the globe, piracy fears for now have trumped marketing needs.
The ban cuts both ways for several companies. For example, anti-piracy advocate Peter Chernin was among the plan’s earliest supporters. But Chernin’s News Corp. owns not only 20th Century Fox but also art-house unit Fox Searchlight. And Searchlight’s films “Thirteen” and “In America” are among the films that could be most hurt by the rule come awards time. (Adding a touch of irony, such films are considered far less likely to be pirated than major releases such as “S.W.A.T.”)
Still, the industry’s big players were willing to make the trade-off, putting aside the pursuit of awards to combat what Hollywood considers the greatest threat to its future profits.
“Wherever I can find a piracy hole in the dike, I have to put a cork in it,” said the MPAA’s president and chief executive, Jack Valenti, who is trying to prevent the movie industry from suffering the business-crippling thievery that has devastated record labels. Valenti has testified repeatedly about the high toll of movie piracy, and in late July, the MPAA launched an anti-piracy campaign that includes education and public service announcements.
“I will miss the screeners,” said Robert Ellis Miller, a director and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “But I can’t blame the studios. I blame the pirates.”
Because Hollywood thrives on self-entitlement, the news is particularly painful for the thousands of well-heeled industry types who crave the free movies as much as private jets and assigned parking.
“It did become kind of a joke,” said director Paul Mazursky (“Down and Out in Beverly Hills”). “We would kid each other and say, ‘Oh, I got such-and-such movies from the studio. Did you?’ And the others would say, ‘Oh no, I didn’t get those.’ ”
Said DreamWorks SKG marketing chief Terry Press: “Academy members are just going to have to find some other way to be popular this Christmas.”
The DVDs and videos are frequently shipped just as the films debut in theaters -- and sometimes before -- which is why the MPAA considers these copies a high-profile target in its campaign against piracy, which costs Hollywood an estimated $3.5 billion annually. This year, illegal copies of screeners for “The Hours” and “Chicago” were confiscated at London’s Heathrow Airport, and some DVDs found in Asia featured the crawl “For academy screening purposes only” on them.
“What’s going on in the music business will happen to us unless we start now,” said Valenti, who had previously downplayed the piracy of awards screeners while blaming the problem on college campus downloads and bootlegs taped off movie theater screens. “It will make Hollywood a desert.”
Oscar publicists and studio marketers were already planning ways to circumvent the ban, holding telephone conferences and strategizing over how to get their movies seen. On Tuesday afternoon at a firm specializing in Oscar publicity campaigns, staffers were hurriedly trying to send out DVD copies of several films.
Others acknowledged that they would simply follow orders and do the best they could.
“This is going to hurt the little guy,” said Melody Korenbrot, whose publicity firm handles awards campaigns for Sony Pictures Classics. “This just means these people are going to have to see the movie on the big screen and we are going to have to screen the [heck] out of them. But there is not a screening room to be had [in L.A.]. Will you be able to rent a screening room in December?”
“I am booked every night of the week through January,” said Charles Aidikoff, who charges $600 to show movies in his 53-seat Beverly Hills screening room. The big studios will enjoy an advantage, the smaller studios complain, because they can spend fortunes booking these private screening rooms to ensure that every possible voter has a chance to see their films, whereas it costs just a few dollars to make and ship a DVD.
Jan Sardi, co-screenwriter of the Oscar-winning “Shine,” said he was “devastated” by the news. Reached in Australia, Sardi said smaller films were going to suffer the biggest blow.
“When you have a little film like ‘Shine’ -- those films just don’t normally reach the vast voting membership,” he said. “I feel that it’s the independents and the smaller films that are going to be disadvantaged.”
The MPAA ban also does not affect movies that are already out on DVD or soon will be. Fox Searchlight, for example, will be able to send voters free DVDs of “Bend It Like Beckham,” which hits video stores this week, but not DVDs of another of its Oscar hopefuls, “In America,” which doesn’t debut in theaters until Nov. 26.
The DVDs and tapes are especially important for smaller studios: The problem for the smaller distributors of such acclaimed films as “Lost in Translation” and “Thirteen” is that even at the peak of their theatrical runs, these movies may play in just a few dozen theaters nationwide.
Actor and academy voter Roger Moore, reached in Monaco, said not having screeners would limit the kinds of films he would get to see. “I live in Switzerland, and the only way I can see them is on the tape or DVD,” he said. He was skeptical that banning the screeners would do much in the fight against piracy.
“I don’t think it makes any difference for piracy -- that goes on in the cutting rooms,” he said.
The free screeners have been credited with helping several obscure films win major Academy Awards, which next year will be broadcast a month earlier than usual, on Feb. 29.
“Without screeners, Pedro Almodovar never would have won the best original screenplay Oscar last year” for “Talk to Her,” said Dawn Hudson, executive director of the Independent Feature Project/Los Angeles, which represents 6,000 independent filmmakers. If tapes are eliminated, she says, “the Academy Awards could become much less diverse.”
But John Sloss, a lawyer, producer and sales agent who works with several top independent filmmakers, downplayed the significance of the ban.
He said that even with limited resources, companies such as Focus could figure out a way to get their movies seen. “If they feel they have real Oscar chances,” Sloss said, “they will have the money.”