- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) — A federal judge yesterday freed movie distributors to send advance 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 ban imposed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) that blocked studios from sending the early copies, or “screeners,” to voters.

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

But independent film producers, who lack the huge advertising budgets of major studios, said screener copies dramatically raised their chances of winning awards — and making more money to stay afloat.

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

Screener copies 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 movies 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 videotape screener copies.

But voters for smaller awards that precede the Oscars were not allowed to receive screeners. Nominations for two such awards already have passed, and Golden Globe award nominations will be decided soon.

The MPAA, a trade group made up of most of the 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.”

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 the current release “American Splendor.”

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

Many of the nation’s most powerful media companies have both movie production and movie-distribution companies. Independent film producers must shop their films to the major distributors to gain wide release to theaters.

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

Judge Mukasey said he saw no reason why other awards voters could not be subjected to the same rules.

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