You Don’t Know Jack

It wasn’t supposed to play out this way. Sure, the major studios expected resistance when they issued an edict, through the Motion Picture Association of America, banning Oscar screeners. They figured that Academy members would whine about losing one of their prized perks—the cartons of 50 or 60 tapes and DVDs that arrive each holiday season. And the majors’ own specialty divisions (or “dependents,” as they’re called by the real indies) would howl. But when the drastic anti-piracy initiative backfired, it exposed just how out of touch Jack Valenti—the 82-year-old veteran who has ably run the MPAA since 1966—is with the complex realities of the industry today. Unlike the era when a Lew Wasserman could lay down the law, this time, when push came to shove, the talent refused to bow to the bosses. 

Still, the ban on screeners wasn’t the studio conspiracy to screw the dependents that many have been claiming—Hollywood gleefully thumbing its nose at the independent studios that have captured the lion’s share of Oscar nominations for at least a decade. The fear of piracy really was behind the MPAA’s directive forbidding members from sending out some 400,000 cassettes and DVDs to the Academy. While the majors can manage without screeners more easily than Oscar-minded subsidiaries like Universal’s Focus Features (The Pianist) or Sony Pictures Classics (Talk to Her), several big-studio Oscar hopefuls could also suffer without them, including Big Fish and Mystic River.

Valenti and the big studio chiefs considered—and ultimately rejected—several technological solutions to the screener problem. Warner Bros. chairman Barry Meyer was especially eager to avoid sending out DVDs on two Oscar-hopeful movies avidly sought-after by pirates: The Last Samurai and The Matrix Revolutions. Valenti and the studio chiefs decided there was only one recourse: No screeners, period. His mandate was to swiftly wangle an MPAA agreement before anyone had time to argue with it, and he used a time-honored Washington tactic: Tell everyone that everyone else is onboard, even if they aren’t.

While Sony Corp. of America chairman Sir Howard Stringer wasn’t sure he wanted to side against filmmakers like Norman Jewison (The Statement) and Robert Altman (The Company) in this battle—Sony Pictures Classics lobbied him to reconsider—he reluctantly signed on. “I couldn’t afford to be the last holdout,” he says. The anti-piracy agenda ($3.5 billion lost to pirated videos last year) trumped the studio chiefs’ own specialty subdivisions’ long-planned Oscar campaigns.

“Why didn’t they consult the filmmakers? It feels like a cartel shutting everyone out.”

Neither the studios nor Valenti anticipated the intensity of the resistance. “A lot of people felt blindsided,” says producer Scott Rudin (The Hours). “It doesn’t feel as if much thought went into it.”

The indies have fought back in the press, painting a vivid picture of the big bad studios’ trying to rob the independents of their Oscar glory. Every day, the list of protesting filmmakers and artists grows longer. “We’re exploring every option to get the CEOs to reverse their position,” says Independent Feature Project executive director Dawn Hudson.

To be sure, the production and marketing of Oscar-caliber films is a global industry. Careers are made on it: Think Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball; Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry; Billy Bob Thornton in Slingblade. Twenty-million-dollar-a-film stars are willing to get paid nothing on films that promise an Oscar campaign. Rudin figures his glum literary flick Iris would never have grossed $8 million in North America without Oscar nominations for Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, and Kate Winslet. Armed with those three nominations, the film went on to earn another $8 million in the U.K. “It would never have gotten those nominations without screeners,” says Rudin. “It would have come and gone in two seconds. We had to have those nominations or we didn’t have anything. If this ban sticks, it’ll make those movies harder to get made.”

In the Bedroom’s international value doubled after its five Oscar nominations, says producer Ted Hope. “Why didn’t they consult the distributors and filmmakers?” he wonders. “There was no attempt to create discourse. It feels like a cartel shutting everyone out.” On October 1, six of the studio subsidiaries held an unprecedented meeting organized by UA’s Bingham Ray. Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein (who has been maintaining an uncharacteristically low profile) actually answered a call during the meeting from Ray’s MGM boss, Alex Yeminidjian, who was not pleased about the meeting; neither was Paramount executive Rob Friedman, who phoned Paramount Classics’ Ruth Vitale. Since then, Ray and Vitale have been muzzled, both of them apparently threatened with the loss of their jobs if they didn’t toe the party line. The “Independent Working Group” wrote Valenti, expressing support for the fight against piracy but asking him to consider the need to promote movies with watermarked VHS screeners.

And last week, the independents seemed to have found their white knight in Howard Stringer, who has figured out the obvious: Hollywood’s artistic community is siding with them. “The studios’ piracy fears are legitimate, but the unintended consequences of the screener ban are not trivial,” says the Sony chief, himself a former documentary filmmaker. “I am happy to listen to the voices that give soul to our industry. We want to disseminate films as widely as possible, and we don’t want to bomb the village in order to save it.”

Valenti made several bad calls. He didn’t provide enough evidence early on that the screeners actually contribute to piracy. He said Academy members are “lazy,” and he forbade the studios from sending out DVDs and cassettes of movies already available at Blockbuster. And he neglected to find out the specialty divisions’ concerns. “The Academy Awards functioned for over 55 years without screeners,” Valenti says. “I don’t think it’s the end of humanity as we know it. If I had a compromise that made sense, I’d look at it. What I can’t do is let piracy take place where I know it’s going to take place.” Nevertheless, last week—perhaps recognizing that if he continued to stand firm the ban would disintegrate—Valenti started negotiating directly with the indie group’s James Schamus and Weinstein.

Whatever the outcome, this brouhaha could mark the end of Valenti’s 37-year Hollywood tenure. “I want to go out on my own time schedule,” he insists, his voice tinged with fatigue. “I’m not sure I’m at the top of my game now when I’m being so pilloried by everybody.”

You Don’t Know Jack