Studios ban Oscar nominee DVDs to thwart piracy -- Independents complain that a policy against sending screener videos to voters hurts them more than the majors

By Gary Susman
Updated October 01, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Adrien Brody, The Pianist, ...

Would Adrien Brody have won the Best Actor Oscar this year if a new policy banning awards screener videos, implemented this week by the Motion Picture Association of America, had been in place last year? Maybe not. The ban, made official on Tuesday by longtime MPAA chief Jack Valenti, is aimed at curbing piracy by stopping the flow of free videocassettes and DVDs that studios send to Academy voters and other awards groups at the end of each year.

But while the major studios signed on to the move, independent distributors are complaining that they’ll be hurt by the ban, since they rely on screener videos to get voters to see movies that aren’t playing on 3,000 screens at the multiplex.

Valenti told the Associated Press that screeners, which major studios and independents alike send out by the tens of thousands each year, have turned up for sale on eBay and as sources for unauthorized DVD copies in Asia, where piracy of American movies is rampant. ”We know these screeners are a small part of piracy, but I aim to close every kind of hole in the dike I can find,” Valenti said. ”There are going to be complaints, and I’m going to be the villain. I understand that,” he told Reuters.

All seven of the major studios that are MPAA members (Disney, MGM, Paramount, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Bros.) and their art-film divisions (Disney’s Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, Universal’s Focus) have signed on to the ban, as have DreamWorks and New Line. It’s those quasi-independent divisions that are complaining that the ban will hurt their Oscar chances. ”It’s going to change dramatically the independent presence in the Oscar race,” Sony Pictures Classics president Tom Bernard told AP.

Non-MPAA independent distributors, like Lions Gate, Newmarket, or IFC Films, all of which have had high-profile Oscar nominees in recent years, are not bound by the ban. Everyone else, however, will have to show their movies to voters the old-fashioned way, in the theater.