Valenti, Pierson agree on screeners for Academy members

Oct 23, 2003 by Ian Evans

The issue of “screeners” — DVD copies of films specially made for members of various guilds and the press — has been a hot one in Hollywood lately after the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its member studios announced they were a leading cause of piracy and would not be sending them out this year.

The outrage was instant. Small films with smaller advertising budgets and less hype depended on the screeners to ensure that the various award granting groups would see their films and have a chance at being nominated. The members of various guilds and press groups say they need them to see all there is to see before the nomination deadlines. They were also angered that they were being accused of piracy.

After some negotiations, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Frank Pierson and Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti announced that a compromise has been reached on the issue of the distribution of “screener” copies of pictures in contention for 2003 Academy Award® honors. Both officials characterized the plan as a one-year experiment.

The compromise will allow screeners to be distributed to members of the Academy who sign a binding agreement with their organization which obligates them to make only personal use of them and to protect them from circulating or being copied.

In a joint statement, Valenti and Pierson said “Defeating piracy in the digital world must be the prime concern of film communities not only in the U.S., but around the world.”

“The practice of sending out huge numbers of screeners without suitable protection produced grave dangers in the new digital environment,” Pierson added. “It could not have been allowed to continue.”

Pierson said that when the screener ban was originally announced, his organization had taken no position on the issue. “We had never been directly involved in the distribution of tapes and DVDs, and the Academy was prepared to maintain its distance from the subject. But as the days wore on, and more and more fears were expressed in news articles, op-ed pieces and letters to me from our members, I thought it might be appropriate for me to call Jack and see if a compromise might be worked out.”

“And let me emphasize,” Pierson said, “that at the time-somewhat to my surprise, frankly-every one of those pieces I had seen had emphasized the damage that could be done to our art form and to the credibility of our awards if the smaller films weren’t able to compete for Academy Awards, rather than awards in general. That was what prompted my phone call to Jack.”

“I came to him with a very specific proposal. We at the Academy had drafted a contract that our members would have to sign that was short and specific and carried a full set of teeth. I also showed him a cover letter designed to make our members fully aware of the new conditions with respect to screeners and piracy. And may I add that in the days since, Jack Valenti has worked like a man possessed to see that this compromise stayed alive. He never lost sight of the concerns of his members, but he demonstrated as he has so often that he understands that movies are an art form as well as a business.”

The Academy’s contract with its members specifies that in order to receive screeners they must agree to keep them under their control at all times, protect them from being reproduced in any fashion, and, at the end of the awards season, securely dispose of any they do not wish to retain.

Though this new agreement settles the situation for the crown jewel of the awards season, other awards and critics groups are still trying to resolve the screener issue for their members.