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Not your typical Oscar season

Oscar date, screener ban and angry critics may affect awards

Maybe there should be an Academy Award for behind-the-scenes theatrics. That’s where the real melodrama lies this Oscar season.

Changes in awards-campaign policy have divided Hollywood’s trade unions, pitted art-house distributors against their big-studio owners and left organizers of other movie honors feeling like Oscar’s poor relations.

The big adjustment: A studio crackdown on “academy screeners” — special videotapes and DVDs for awards voters, a convenience that has allowed Hollywood types to watch Oscar contenders in their own living rooms rather than a theater or private screening room.

The move has infuriated many awards voters, generally working stiffs putting in long days, who gripe that they lack time to trudge out to see all the awards contenders on the big screen.

Compounding matters, the upcoming awards season is shorter because Oscar organizers moved their ceremony from late March to Feb. 29, with other awards shifting to earlier dates to follow suit. That leaves voters with three weeks less time to catch the films.

“Some of these films don’t last very long in theaters,” said actor Alec Baldwin, an academy member who opposes any restrictions on awards screeners. “With some of these things, the only opportunity to see them is on a screener.”

Screener ban controversy
Through their trade group, the Motion Picture Association of America, the top seven studios implemented a complete ban on screeners Sept. 30, claiming the DVDs and videotapes contributed to movie piracy.

A fury of opposition from awards voters prompted MPAA and the studios to lift part of the ban, allowing screeners for Oscar voters but not those who hand out other honors such as the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild awards or critics prizes.

The deal — which permits only VHS tapes, not DVDs — requires members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to sign an anti-piracy pledge. It also allows studios to encode the videos so they can be tracked back to the recipient if they are used to make bootleg copies.

Hollywood professionals say the issue has been a slap in the face, a message that only the Academy Awards elite membership of 5,800 can be trusted to keep screeners out of bootleggers’ hands.

“That is the worst thing you can do to actors. We spend our lives being rejected. We don’t need more of it, especially from our employers,” said SAG President Melissa Gilbert. “I cannot believe these people think we’re pirating our own work.”

Withholding home-video screeners will make it difficult for members of SAG’s 2,100-member nominating committee to see all potential contenders for its awards, Gilbert said.

SAG presents its awards Feb. 22, a week before the Oscars. Because of the Oscar date change, February is jam-packed with awards shows that previously had been spread over a two-month span.

An attempt to curtail campaigning The academy moved up its ceremony hoping to rejuvenate a show whose TV ratings have slipped in recent years. The marathon awards season that starts in December has become crowded with movie honors, leaving some viewers burned out by the time the Oscars roll around.

“There was a sense people might not be quite as tired about who was nominated for this award and who won that prize if our show came earlier, so our news is a little fresher,” said Bruce Davis, academy executive director.

Also new this season are tougher academy rules to curtail Oscar campaigning. Studios spend millions of dollars on advertising and events to boost a single film’s awards prospects, tactics the academy finds distasteful.

New academy standards forbid Oscar-season parties intended to influence academy voters, awards ads that include endorsements from academy members, and smear campaigns against particular films.

Two years ago, the makers of eventual best-picture winner “A Beautiful Mind” complained the film was subjected to rumor-mongering by competitors. Last season, other studios criticized Miramax over newspaper ads that reprinted an opinion column by Oscar-winning director Robert Wise praising “Gangs of New York” nominee Martin Scorsese.

Anyone violating the rules could be kicked out of the academy or have their film yanked out of Oscar contention in some categories.

Hollywood had been adjusting to the shorter season and stricter awards rules when the screener issue hit and quickly overshadowed those earlier changes.

MPAA President Jack Valenti said studios are adding theater screenings for awards voters to compensate for the screener ban.

“We knew this decision was not going to satisfy everybody, but there’s going to be ample opportunity for people who want to see these movies to see them,” Valenti said.

Piracy fears
With as many as 20,000 copies sent out for some movies, awards screeners have become a growing concern for studios fighting piracy. DVDs bootlegged from awards screeners have turned up in Asia, Valenti said.

Before home video, Oscar and other awards voters had to make do catching movies on the big screen. They have since become spoiled by awards screeners, but critics of the ban say that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“There’s no such thing as too convenient,” said Tom O’Neil, author of the book “Movie Awards.” “We’re dealing with a group of people who are notoriously lazy and selfish and pampered in Hollywood. So to appeal to that laziness is shrewd.”

Trade unions and other Hollywood groups are divided on the issue. The Directors Guild of America and Writers Guild of America support the plan to allow screeners only for academy members, saying they prefer that awards voters see movies as the filmmakers intended on the big screen, rather than reduced to small TV images.

The British Academy of Film and Television and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which awards the Golden Globes in late January, oppose the screener ban, as do critics groups whose film honors often call Oscar voters’ attention to obscure films they otherwise might not have seen.

Lorenzo Soria, president of the foreign-press group, said his 90 members are well-known to studios and should not be treated as potential piracy suspects. His group is willing to abide by the same anti-piracy pledge as academy members, he said.

“This all somehow implies our word is less trustworthy than that of others,” Soria said.

Critics hamstrung by ban
Los Angeles and Chicago critics groups canceled their awards because of the screener ban. The Los Angeles group’s president, Jean Oppenheimer, said screeners helped members sort through the year-end onslaught of films to single out top performances.

Prizes from critics and other awards groups have built early buzz for actors in smaller films, including such eventual Oscar winners as Hilary Swank for “Boy’s Don’t Cry,” Marcia Gay Harden for “Pollock,” Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball” and Adrien Brody for “The Pianist.”

Those flicks came from studio-owned boutique distributors whose films often play in only handfuls of theaters and lack the cash their studio-bannered cousins have to blanket awards voters with private screenings and ads in Hollywood trade papers.

Executives at the studios’ boutique arms privately grouse that their films will be at a disadvantage if screeners cannot be sent to critics and other early awards groups. But they are tightlipped about publicly criticizing their studio parents for imposing the screener ban.

Since the advent of awards screeners in the last 10 to 15 years, smaller films have won an increasing share of Oscars. Some say the screener ban is not a piracy matter but a strong-arm tactic by studios embarrassed that their big-budget spectacles have lost ground to independent films.

“Piracy has been an issue for 20 years, since the full-fledged advent of video,” Baldwin said. “It’s not like the home-entertainment nexus was burst 18 months ago. People have been watching and enjoying and spending billions of dollars on VHS or DVD for decades. It was only when the studios started getting their (butts) kicked at the Oscars that the piracy flag was raised in our face.”