A recent uproar has swept through the
Hollywood community, once again separating major studio players
from the so-called independents of the film world. No, the studios
haven’t started buying up theaters again and muscling the little
giants out of town. The big boys have pooled their efforts together
to shut down the evil piracy network that has arisen from … award
screeners?

Janna Hutz

Yep, those little DVDs and videos that production companies send
out en masse come award season to members of the Academy have been
banned by the powerful Motion Picture Association of America, and
the independent studios have presented their opposition in one
mighty accord. Seeing as how almost nobody else in the world has
any notion of what these packages mean to the studios that don’t
have the influence or marketing power of a Disney or Paramount, it
behooves me to explain just why this decision has caused such a
commotion in Tinseltown.

Let’s take a look at the arguments presented by each side. MPAA
and the major studios: Screeners have become a major liability as
their presence prior to the market release on home video has led to
tremendous piracy that creates a severe drop in DVD and VHS
profits. Independent film companies: Most members of the Academy
won’t have the time to go see our films in theaters, so these
screeners are necessary in order for our projects to ever be
considered for an Oscar.

Now, it’s important to understand exactly how ridiculous the
screener ban is and how out of proportion the minor independents
have blown the situation. For one, copyright infringement due to
the rerecording of screeners is the least of the MPAA’s piracy
problems. The true problem lies in the newfound capabilities of DVD
burning, where people can easily replicate their home video
collection and pass it freely between friends. Under this
consideration, the ban can be seen as a ploy to push independent
companies without the marketing power of major studios out of
business because they will lose support in awards voting –
especially since the biggest players in the MPAA’s decision are
seven major studios along with New Line and some others, with its
biggest signature coming from Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein.

Looking at it from the other perspective, we can see where this
poses a tremendous threat to the ongoing credibility and power of
the independent features. Knocking out screeners would prevent much
of the academy at large from viewing the massive amounts of films
before the voting deadline, and they would therefore be ousted from
consideration. This is truly an understandable position.

However, when considering the last seven years of Academy
Awards, there is a dominant trend to nominate maybe a single
independent film in the Best Picture category, and you would have
to search meticulously to find any nominations at all through the
early 1990s. In fact, there has never been an independent film that
took home the Best Picture Award in Oscar history. Sure, there is
the possibility that an independent will win in the future, but
based on past statistics, the outlook is gloomy.

Not only that, but most independent films are hardly that
anymore. Many of the so-called independent companies exist under
the banner of a larger media conglomerate, such as Sony Pictures
Classics, Fine Line and Dimension. Plus, almost all of the
independent films that have received any nominations have also
found wide release throughout the country.

The true shame in the matter is that this pitiless skirmish has
put the issue of quality filmmaking on the backburner. Major
productions have been reduced to a majority of sequels, remakes, or
“re-imaginations.” Maybe the studios are truly concerned that their
films have started to fall second-tier to the rising quality of
independent films. Regardless, this ban is an arbitrary assertion
of the MPAA’s power that actually has little power to affect the
more important issues plaguing the film industry today. Screeners
or no screeners, Miramax will still probably have at least one Best
Picture nod every year and an independent label will still most
likely never see that little golden man standing in its personal
shrine.

– Lewis can be reached at
“mailto:lewisra@umich.edu”>lewisra@umich.edu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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