MPAA to Soften Screener Ban?

Movie studios, producers, writers, actors, and distributors are seeking a work- around of an edict issued only a couple of weeks ago by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) that would ban free screening copies of Academy Award-nominated movies.

On September 30, the MPAA issued the ban citing piracy concerns, and noting that some of the screeners have found their way into the hands of illicit duplicators. Some nominated films have been available on DVD in Asian markets before they made their commercial debut in American theaters, according to MPAA president Jack Valenti.

The ban on screening copies was made to plug an obvious hole in the industry's security system, but it wasn't long after it was announced that representatives from MPAA-affiliated studios and distribution companies began seeking a way around it. On October 16, top executives discussed the situation without reaching any conclusions. One likely compromise could be the use of VHS tapes "with special security coding" that could be traced back to the original recipient if copied, according to The Hollywood Reporter. DVDs will probably not be used again, and some stronger form of distribution control will likely be created to prevent screening copies from passing hand-to-hand. One source told the Reporter, "Nobody has an interest in letting them get out to everybody's relative."

Screeners are perceived by many in the industry as absolutely essential tools in generating votes for Academy Awards, winners of which stand to generate enormous revenue in box-office ticket sales, and in video rentals and sales. They give smaller films more visibility than they would otherwise enjoy among blockbusters.

The issue is still under discussion and will undoubtedly heat up as voting season nears. On October 19, entertainment industry organ Variety announced that the Los Angeles Film Critics Association "has decided not to give its annual awards this year, unless the Motion Picture Assn. of America drops its ban on screeners."

"There will be future meetings and conversations, and if it warrants it, we will make announcements," said MPAA spokesman Rich Taylor.