Court halts Oscar screener ban. The judge grants indie filmmakers a temporary injunction, allowing them to send copies of their movies to awards voters

By Gary Susman
Updated December 05, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

In what may prove to be only a symbolic victory for independent filmmakers, a U.S. District Court judge in New York granted a temporary injunction on Friday that will prevent the major studios from enforcing the new ban on ”screener” videos sent to awards voters. A coalition of independent filmmakers proved successful in their suit against the Motion Picture Association of America, the lobbying group for the big Hollywood studios, which had imposed the ban on Sept. 30 on the grounds that leaked screeners were contributing to piracy.

The MPAA modified the ban three weeks later to make an exception for Academy members but not other awards voters. The indies filed their suit on antitrust grounds, arguing that keeping screeners out of the hands of critics groups hurt the films’ chances for the exposure and increased box office that comes with awards recognition, especially if the critics groups help put awards hopefuls on the Oscar map, à la ”Boys Don’t Cry,” ”Monster’s Ball,” and ”The Pianist.” According to the Associated Press, Judge Michael B. Mukasey agreed with that argument, writing in his opinion: ”Plaintiffs have shown they are at risk of loss of revenue as a result of the screener ban.”

Of course, the MPAA argued that it had imposed the ban because it was also at risk of loss of revenue, from piracy. But for smaller distributors, piracy is less of a concern than exposure. ”The hardest thing is trying to get people to see my movies, not that they would steal them,” indie producer Ted Hope (who produced this year’s awards hopefuls ”21 Grams” and ”American Splendor”) testified on Wednesday, according to Reuters. Responding to Friday’s verdict, Hope said he was ”thrilled,” while MPAA lawyer Simon Barsky said he hoped to file an appeal within two weeks.

The indies’ court victory may come too late, however, to help them in this year’s awards voting, since it would be all but impossible for them to manufacture screeners, ship them to major voting groups, and give critics enough time to see them before they vote. The Independent Spirit Award nominations and the National Board of Review winners have already been named. The Boston Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle both vote next weekend, and ballots for Golden Globes voters are due Dec. 15.