Originally created 11/26/03

Small companies sue MPA over screener ban

NEW YORK -- Small movie production companies sued the Motion Picture Association of America Monday to try to force an end to a partial ban by Hollywood studios on sending special video copies to awards groups.

More than a dozen companies joined in the lawsuit against the movie studios' trade group in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, saying the partial ban will "chill the financing of independent films" by limiting the awards they can receive.

"Awards and accolades beget more awards and accolades, which culminate for the awards season with the Academy Awards," the lawsuit said.

In September, MPAA President Jack Valenti said a ban was necessary after "screener" copies sent to awards voters were put on sale on eBay or were used to duplicate bootlegged DVDs in Asia.

Last month, the Hollywood studios partially reversed the ban, agreeing to send copies to about 5,600 Academy Awards voters but not to the far larger pool that votes on lesser honors.

That means groups that present the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild awards, critics prizes and other movie honors will have to see films at theaters or at screenings arranged by studios. Oscar voters, meanwhile, can watch movies at home on copies sent by the films' distributors.

Rich Taylor, an MPAA spokesman, said the lawsuit is misguided because the reason for the ban was "to reduce piracy and to preserve the motion picture industry for filmmakers, both large and small."

"Any suggestions that this is designed to disadvantage one type of film over another is simply untrue," he said.

Among the 14 plaintiffs: Talking Wall Pictures, Sandcastle 5 Productions and Salty Features.

The lawsuit sought at least $25 million in damages and asked the court to find that the MPAA was conspiring to monopolize the film industry, restricting trade through unlawful and unreasonable agreements with its governing members.

It predicted that continued enforcement of the ban would result in fewer movies, higher prices and decreased quality.

The lawsuit said the ban was too restrictive and treated all movies the same, "in spite of the fact that it is clearly the big blockbuster movies that are most at risk of being pirated."

It said small, independent film producers were forced to either accept the terms set by the major movie studios or be excluded from well over 80 percent of the distribution market.

The lawsuit said the MPAA's actions toward the small movie producers "were outrageous and were taken with evil motive."

The concerns about piracy caused the MPAA to alter a practice it began in the late 1980s when it started sending VHS screeners to Oscar voters.

In the 1990s, distributors began sending VHS and DVD copies to voters for Golden Globes along with top critics and entertainment reporters, among others. In time, as many as 15,000 screeners for some films were sent to guild members, critics, reporters or other awards voters.

Awards analysts said screener copies boosted prospects for art-house films, which have grabbed an increasing share of Oscars in the last decade.

The lawsuit suggested that the prospects for successful independent films including "In the Bedroom," "Gosford Park," "Lost in Translation," "Thirteen" and "Far from Heaven" would be harmed by a continued ban on screeners.

"If the ban is not lifted immediately, critical exposure, momentum and buzz opportunities will be irreparably missed," it said.


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