How the ban on DVD screeners changes the Oscar race -- The controversial anti-piracy move creates a new set of awards-season winners and losers

By Gary Susman
Updated October 01, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

This year’s race for Oscar nominations may have ended on Sept. 30. That was the day the Motion Picture Association of America made official its ban on year-end ”screeners,” the tens of thousands of DVDs and VHS tapes of movies sent to Oscar voters and other awards juries who can’t — or won’t — see the films in theaters.

MPAA president Jack Valenti said that the ban’s intent is to stem piracy, but smaller distributors who depend on screeners to expose their hard-to-find films to voters say the move will hurt their Oscar chances and favor the major studios. In other words, voters could shift their favor toward widely distributed movies (like ”The Alamo” and ”The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”) and ignore those playing on markedly fewer screens (like ”Lost in Translation,” or this fall’s buzzed-about drama ”21 Grams”). In earlier years, such a policy might have kept stars in little-seen movies — like ”The Pianist”’s Adrien Brody or ”Pollock”’s Marcia Gay Harden — from picking up Oscars.

Actually, it’s not quite that simple. A lot of the ”independent” boutique distributors that are complaining are actually divisions of the major studios. Truly independent studios, who are not MPAA members and therefore not bound by its rules, will still be able to send out screeners, while movies that played early in the year will also be unaffected because they’ll have been released on home video anyway.

Massive protests, in the form of petitions signed by hundreds of top filmmakers and actors, have prompted talk that the MPAA may back down a little, perhaps offering VHS screeners encoded to identify their owners in case they’re leaked to pirates. Still, any change may come too late to blunt the impact of the ban to date. Here’s a rundown of who the ban will actually help and hurt:

The major studios Hollywood’s big studios — Disney, MGM, Paramount, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Bros. — as well as New Line and DreamWorks have the ad money and distribution power not to have to worry so much about not being able to send screeners. Movies in wide release at the end of the year — this year, that’ll include ”Return of the King,” ”The Alamo,” ”The Last Samurai,” ”Mona Lisa Smile,” and ”Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” — are the ones voters are likely to see first. And it’s those blockbusters that are most in need of the protection from piracy that the ban is meant to provide.

The true independents Unaffiliated distributors like Lions Gate, Newmarket, and Magnolia can still send out screeners of movies like ”Whale Rider,” ”Girl With a Pearl Earring,” and ”Capturing the Friedmans.”

Early releases Oscar hopefuls that came out earlier in the year, like ”Seabiscuit” or ”Bend It Like Beckham,” will already be available on home video anyway. Plus, if voters buy or rent these DVDs, they’ll get all the commentary and extras, which screener versions (which contain the movie only) don’t have.

The Academy The Academy, which does not play a role in enforcing the MPAA decision, nonetheless gets to enjoy the perception of a cleaner campaign season that’s less tainted by the kind of blatant politicking that screeners represent. At the same time, it avoids blame for the continuation of a ban hated by its own voting members; the Academy leadership’s proposal to send screeners to its own voters was shot down by the MPAA and the studios as impractical. In any case, as Academy members who are movie purists (directors like ”Kill Bill”’s Quentin Tarantino, for instance) will tell you, they’d rather have voters judge their movies as they appear on the big screen than cropped or squished on a TV.

The studios’ boutique divisions
The quasi-independents — Disney’s Miramax, Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, Paramount Classics, New Line’s Fine Line, and Universal’s Focus — had enjoyed big Oscar payoffs because of screeners, but this year, a number of awards hopefuls won’t be making it into voters’ living rooms. Among them are Sofia Coppola’s acclaimed ”Lost in Translation,” the Jennifer Connelly/Ben Kingsley drama ”House of Sand and Fog,” Palm D’Or winner ”Elephant,” Gwyneth Paltrow’s ”Sylvia,” and several others. With a shorter voting season this year (the Oscars having been moved from March to February starting in 2004), the boutiques now have to scramble to come up with alternate ways of bringing these films to voters’ attention.DreamWorks, for instance, is booking an L.A. theater to host pre-release screenings of ”Sand and Fog.”

Theater owners To make up for the lost screeners, Valenti has promised to double up on year-end theatrical screenings for Academy members. Theater owners in Los Angeles and New York, where voters get into screenings free, are already grumbling that even more seats that would have gone to paying customers will be lost, costing them as much as 25 percent of their lucrative seasonal box office.

Critics’ groups Movie-critic groups based outside Los Angeles and New York, which also used to depend on screeners, will have a harder time coming up with year-end kudos lists, since many of the eligible movies don’t play in those cities until January or even later. Even the Los Angeles Film Critics Association has decided it can’t do its job without screeners and is canceling its year-end awards if the ban isn’t lifted, a decision that will ultimately mean loss of prestige only for LAFCA itself.

The MPAA By scrapping screeners, the MPAA is blaming piracy on (and taking a perk away from) awards voters — the very people whose praise it seeks for its member studios and their movies. Not exactly a way to engender good will from the industry insiders who comprise the Academy or the journalists who cover Hollywood.