Film critics give thumbs-down to Oscar DVD ban. Awards groups in Chicago and Washington, D.C. join chorus of those who say the antipiracy measure will hurt indie films

By Gary Susman
Updated October 07, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s hard to get movie critics, Oscar voters, and film distributors to agree on anything, but a consensus is growing in opposition to the Motion Picture Association of America’s ban on year-end screener DVDs and VHS tapes. While the MPAA, in announcing the move last week, said it’s meant to stem piracy, critics of the ban complain that widely distributed movies from the major studios will benefit at the expense of sparsely booked independent movies. The latest to speak out against the ban are film critics’ associations in Chicago and Washington, D.C., groups that depend on screeners to view movies that haven’t yet been booked in theaters in their cities for awards consideration. Said the Chicago Film Critics Association, in a strongly worded statement, the ban is ”one of the most ill-advised and potentially destructive ideas to emerge from Hollywood since the blacklist.”

Industry insiders also continued to speak out against the ban. Oscar-winning director Norman Jewison, whose upcoming Sony Pictures Classics release ”The Statement” will be affected by the ban, wrote a letter to MPAA chief Jack Valenti, saying, ”When the small independent film, which depends on its artistic appeal rather than wide commercial distribution by an MPAA member, is now denied access, the playing field becomes unfair and uneven.”

”I think there are a lot bigger issues here than just piracy,” president Bob Berney of indie distributor Newmarket told Variety, echoing the sentiments expressed last week in a meeting of executives from fellow independents and studio art-film divisions. (While non-MPAA members like Newmarket are exempt from the ban, they’re as worried about its impact as the studio divisions, from Disney’s Miramax to Fox Searchlight, that will have to scrap their screeners.) “Personally, I think it’s about excluding the independents from the awards or at least making it more difficult for us to be included,” Berney said. ”It seems a very last-minute, impractical solution, which was reached without consulting anyone but the studios.”

Valenti disputed such allegations, insisting that curbing piracy was the sole motivation for the ban. ”A lot of people think this is a conspiracy,” he told Variety. ”But how can it be a conspiracy when the subsidiaries of the majors are distributing 90 percent of these films? What’s the alternative? To sit by inert and inactive and watch screeners be sent out? I cannot stand by and casually see the piracy of screeners. It doesn’t make sense.”