Hollywood implemented an anti-piracy plan on Tuesday banning special DVDs and videotapes for Oscar voters, angering champions of smaller movies that have taken home an increasing share of the film industry's highest honors.
Academy Awards voters will have to catch most of their movies in theaters after the major studios and their trade group, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), agreed to stop sending ``screener'' copies to the 5,600 Oscar voters.
Mindful of the piracy that has sucked profits from the music industry, studios feared screener copies could be used by bootleggers to mass-produce pirated DVDs and tapes.
``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,'' Jack Valenti, head of the MPAA, said.
Critics -- mainly executives for studio-owned boutique distributors of smaller, independent-minded pictures such as recent Oscar winners The Pianist and Pollock -- say the plan will cripple awards prospects for their movies. Screener copies help level the playing field between high-profile studio flicks and smaller movies that lack big budgets for theatrical screenings aimed at Oscar voters and promotional ads in Hollywood trade papers, opponents say.
The agreement includes MPAA's seven studio members -- Disney, Warner Bros, Sony, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Paramount and MGM -- plus their affiliates, such as New Line, Miramax, Focus Features and Sony Pictures Classics. DreamWorks, though not an MPAA member, also agreed to the screener ban.
Videotapes and DVDs of potential Oscar films have become commonplace during awards season as studios try to make sure as many Oscar voters as possible see their movies.
The plan would benefit truly independent distributors such as Lions Gate (producer of Monster's Ball), Newmarket (Memento) or IFC Films (Casa de los Babys), which have no corporate links to MPAA studios and are not bound by the ban.
``If implemented the way it's being discussed, it will be one of the greatest boons to some of the more freelance companies,'' said James Schamus, co-president of Focus Features, the Universal banner that released The Pianist.
Other Focus films that could be affected by the screener ban include Lost in Translation, which has drawn Oscar buzz for star Bill Murray and writer-director Sofia Coppola, and 21 Grams, which features sizzling performances from Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro.
``It's going to change dramatically the independent presence in the Oscar race,'' said Tom Bernard, president of Sony Pictures Classics, whose film Pollock won a supporting-actress Oscar for Marcia Gay Harden. His upcoming Oscar hopefuls include Norman Jewison's Nazi-hunting thriller The Statement, starring Michael Caine.
Executives at studio-owned boutiques said the issue is less about piracy and more about studios trying to freeze out independent films, which have become bigger players in the Oscar hunt at the expense of Hollywood flicks.
But Valenti said Oscar screener copies have turned up for sale on Internet sites such as eBay and also popped up in Asia, where they have been used to duplicate counterfeit DVDs.
The screener ban affects other movie awards, including the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild honors and critics' prizes. Thousands of voters for those film honors and many entertainment reporters commonly have received awards DVDs and videotapes from studios.
Virtually everyone in Hollywood agrees that the best way to see Oscar contenders is on the large-scale format of the big screen. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, while never taking a formal stand on awards screeners, always has encouraged its members to see movies in theaters rather than on DVD or tape.
Oscar voters themselves are torn between the convenience of watching movies at home and the desire to see films in a theater out of respect for their peers.
Academy member Quentin Tarantino, a 1994 Oscar screenplay winner and best-director nominee for Pulp Fiction, said that if not for screener copies, a movie such as Pollock probably never would have been seen widely enough to gain Oscar buzz for Harden and the film's star and director, Ed Harris, who was nominated for best actor.
Yet Tarantino said it pained him when he learned that videotapes of Pulp Fiction were being sent to Oscar voters.
``I'm here to tell you, I thought they were carving my heart out by sending videos,'' said Tarantino, whose Kill Bill, Vol. 1 hits US theaters next week. ``I worked my [butt] off on that movie, and the fact that they were sending it out to people to watch in their homes, reduced to a tiny screen, I just hated that idea.''
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