MPAA Screener Compromise

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has partially caved into demands from voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to release screening copies of movies nominated for Academy Awards.

On October 23, the MPAA announced that it would lift a ban on screeners announced September 30, compromising by deciding to issue encoded videotapes to voting members. The trade organization made the original decision to eliminate screeners based on strong evidence that some DVDs sent out to voters ended up in the hands of professional pirates. Some films have appeared as bootleg DVDs in offshore markets before they debuted in North American theaters, according to MPAA officials.

The screener ban provoked howls of outrage from many industry groups, some of which, such as the Los Angeles Film Citics Association, threatened boycotts of the annual awards or cancellations of other awards if screeners weren't made available. The new policy will provide the more than 6000 AMPAS members with videocassette copies of nominated films. Each videotape will have a code buried in it that will enable the MPAA to trace illegal copies back to their source. Voting members must keep the videos in their homes, cannot lend them to friends or relatives, and must destroy those they choose not to keep after the Awards.

In the deal announced jointly by AMPAS president Frank Pierson and MPAA president Jack Valenti, some groups that have traditionally received screening copies will be shut out this year, including the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, whose members vote on the annual Golden Globe Awards. Another group that won't be receiving screeners is the 2100-member Screen Actors Guild (SAG) nominating committee. Unintentional evidence of Hollywood's upside-down economics, the MPAA made this decision to exclude SAG based on the assumption that some actors might be unemployed and could be tempted to sell the videos. SAG president Melissa Gilbert immediately fired off an indignant letter to Valenti, accusing his organization of treating SAG members as "less trustworthy" than others. Other industry associations not receiving screeners include the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA). Neither has traditionally received screeners. Officials of both groups endorsed the plan. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, on the other hand, called their exclusion "completely arbitrary and an assault on the professional integrity of our members."

The screener ban was also met with disdain in Europe. Film producer Duncan Kenworthy, chairman of the film committee of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts BAFTA), derided the decision "an extraordinary act of injustice." The European Film Companies Alliance, a trade group of independent film companies, characterized the ban as "evidence of the MPAA's sheer arrogance and of its ignorance of the richness of world cinema." Meanwhile, a study posted on the website of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) finds that 77% of feature films that have appeared on Internet file-sharing services "appear to have been leaked by industry insiders." Only 5% appeared after the release of the commercial DVD, according to the report.