MPAA may back down on Oscar video ban. After relentless protests, indie filmmakers may be allowed to send numbered VHS tapes to Oscar voters

By Gary Susman
October 09, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Motion Picture Association of America chief Jack Valenti said last week he was happy to be the villain in the brouhaha over the MPAA’s recently announced ban of Oscar-season tapes and DVDs for awards voters; after all, he said, he couldn’t just sit idly by and let piracy proliferate as a result of the widely available Oscar screener videos. But after a week of relentless protests against the move by independent and art-house studio executives, directors, actors, film critics’ groups, and even the Academy, the MPAA may be ready to back down, the New York Times reports.

The MPAA is a creature of the major Hollywood studios, but the ban’s critics have argued that it will make it harder for voters to see sparsely booked movies from the studios’ own art-house divisions. The so-called ”dependent” studios and the truly independent distributors (like Lions Gate and Newmarket) have shown solidarity in attacking the ban for helping big-studio blockbusters at the expense of harder-to-book art movies of the kind that have won Oscars (and box office boosts from the Oscars) in recent years.

Some distributors who fear the effects of the ban have managed to book extensive prerelease screenings for their movies (Fox Searchlight’s ”In America,” DreamWorks’ ”House of Sand and Fog”), but there are only so many screening rooms in Los Angeles and New York, and this year’s shorter-than-usual awards season has left smaller distributors with little time to book theaters and come up with alternate marketing campaigns.

Even the Academy, traditionally loath to express any kind of favoritism in the majors-vs.-indies tug-of-war, has chimed in on the issue. Perhaps objecting to Valenti’s characterization of Oscar voters as ”lazy,” Academy president Frank Pierson told the Times, ”The fact of the matter is I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to see these movies on the big screen. But it’s difficult.” Academy members tend to be older folks, and the shortened season means less time to get out to theaters to see all the movies. Pierson said the screener ban ”is distressing to our members,” so distressing that some have threatened to vote against big-studio pictures in protest.

Valenti has acknowledged that the decision behind the ban was reached as recently as four weeks ago and made without the consultation of art-house distributors. Yesterday, however, he participated in a conference call with executives from some of those distributors in an effort to reach a compromise, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

One suggested solution would be to send movies via a secure Internet service like Movielink, where downloaded film files self-destruct after 24 hours, but that idea isn’t likely to fly with older voters who aren’t tech-savvy or anyone who thinks movies play better on a home entertainment system than on a PC. Another suggestion is to send voters VHS cassettes, which would be electronically encoded to trace illicit copies back to their source, though not DVDs, which are easier to duplicate.