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Judge blocks ban on ‘screeners’

Temporary restraining order allows indies to send out tapes

A federal judge Friday freed movie distributors to send copies of films to awards voters — a decision seen as a victory for independent film producers as awards season approaches.

U.S. district judge Michael B. Mukasey lifted a rule imposed by the Motion Picture Association of America that blocked studios from sending the videotape copies, or “screeners,” to voters.

The MPAA had argued that the ban, issued in September, was a means of slowing the explosion of movie piracy. Digital copies of many films turn up on the Internet long before they’re released to video stores.

But independent film producers, who lack the huge advertising budgets of major studios, said screeners dramatically raised their chances of receiving critical buzz, winning awards — and making more money.

Mukasey decided the independent film producers had shown sufficient evidence that withholding screeners violates antitrust law and hurts competition.

“The screener ban will significantly harm independent films, thereby reducing the competition these films pose to major studio releases,” Mukasey said in Manhattan federal court.

Screeners allow awards voters to view movies on their own time, in their homes. Banning them, small film producers argued, means voters must attend one-time-only premieres or see the films in a limited number of theaters.

The ban was modified in October to allow the 5,600 voters who decide the Academy Awards, the industry’s most influential, to receive the videotapes.

But voters for smaller awards that precede the Oscars weren’t allowed to receive screeners. Nominations for two such awards already have come and gone, and Golden Globe award contenders will be decided soon.

The MPAA, a trade group composed of most major studios in America, said it would appeal the decision within two weeks to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We know, without dispute, that in the past screeners have been sources for pirated goods both domestically and overseas,” MPAA chief Jack Valenti said. “We will appeal because the impact and growing threat of piracy is real and must be addressed wherever it appears.”

Indie producers thrilled
Independent film producers said they were elated. They called the ruling a victory for movie fans and said it would allow quality small films to get the acclaim they deserve.

“I feel that for specialized films, it’s much clearer the need for screeners to get attention,” said Ted Hope, a producer whose independent films include this year’s “American Splendor.”

Hope said he left the courtroom as soon as he heard the judge’s ruling to call distributors and urge them to send out screener copies as quickly as possible.

Peter Jackson — director of the epic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the third part of which comes out Dec. 17 — also was happy to hear about the ruling.

Although Jackson’s film could benefit by limiting awards voters’ exposure to other films, the New Zealand-based director said he feels great sympathy toward smaller movies. He’s directed some himself, including 1994’s “Heavenly Creatures.”

“I just think the whole thing was rushed, ill-informed, and didn’t allow the industry to debate it,” Jackson told The Associated Press Friday. “Now’s the time to talk about it. Don’t do the ban this year. Let everybody talk about it in a civilized way and look at what can be done next year.”

Under the modified ban, Academy Awards voters must agree not to distribute their copies of films or risk expulsion from the academy. Their videotapes also have tracking devices to trace piracy.

Mukasey said he saw no reason why other awards voters couldn’t be subjected to the same rules.

The judge was also unswayed by the MPAA’s argument that screeners pose a serious threat of piracy. He said a much bigger threat comes from home-video distribution, which allows computer-savvy people to make copies of the DVDs or videotapes they rent and post them on the Internet.