Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Task of movie reviewing made much easier by absence of Jack Valenti

Just this past week, DVD screening copies of the Focus Features releases "The Door in the Floor" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" wound up on my doorstep. Their arrivals certainly weren't something to jot down on the out-of-the-ordinary note pad or anything (if you were a member of the Online Film Critics Society, you'd know full well that this happens frequently during the latter months of a year), but considering how much hysteria had been caused in the industry over the previous months regarding piracy, they were nonetheless a sight I hadn't expected to see for some time. The first emotion was that of skepticism, but then an epiphany: "Of course! That old poop Jack Valenti is no longer at the head of the table at the Motion Picture Association of America!" Remember what they used to say in those high school comedies about parents always spoiling the fun of an ambitious teenager? Imagine, then, how a party animal would feel knowing that his mom or dad has gone on an extended vacation, leaving him alone in the house.

In order for someone to understand this perspective, they must at first understand the scenario. Jack Valenti, who sat at the top of the MPAA for what seemed like an epoch, was the kind of guy who, almost instinctively, looked for new and inventive ways to screw around with the establishment of moviemaking and its marketing. Some called him the Mussolini of his profession; others, like yours truly, didn't even bother with labels and would have rather scribbled the word "fascist" across his forehead. Few can argue that he was instrumental in the foundation of today's inept and flawed movie ratings system, and the most recent campaign in his career, taking on the growing problem of film piracy, was not so much about preserving the integrity of the cinema as it was about going on a maniacal power trip. Any man, after all, who condones destroying whole computer systems because someone might download an entire film illegally off the Internet is obviously not looking at priorities clearly.

For us critics, his iron thumb reached farther than the incessant rhetoric. Last year, just weeks before members of the OFCS were to start receiving annual awards screeners from several of the big movie studios, Valenti called for an outright ban of them. Yep, that's right - fear of piracy meant that individual studios, who abided by the governing rules of the MPAA, were restricted in sending anything out. Zilch. Zip. Nada. His initial proposal didn't just involve the standard groups of press people, either; no, it also included prestigious awards groups like the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose awarding phases have become the platform for some of the most anticipated Hollywood events in pop culture, both on and off broadcast television.

Almost immediately, Academies and critics groups appealed the decision, with several prominent industry forces challenging Valenti's ban via conference calls, and others taking to the mass media to speak out against the consequences of a screener ban (two critics circles even cancelled their entire awards voting in protest). The independent distributors were particularly vocal, as the ban would have prevented awards voters from seeing crucial contenders that would have otherwise not reached the theatrical mass that the more commercial material does. One can only imagine what a ban would have done to these distributors in previous years, too - would films like "Shakespeare in Love" or "In the Bedroom" ever had the chance to win the major awards that they did if Valenti's ban had prevented Miramax from sending the movies out?

Eventually, by some small act of fate, the looming fear of a screener-less season raised fears regarding the reach of potential awards and thus led to the lifting of the restriction. But by then, the damage had already been done; voting times had passed, and some studios never bothered to print enough copies of their films. Those that did manage to make the cut (including those who eventually contributed their movies to the OFCS membership) usually did so by sending out VHS copies of their awards qualifiers instead of the industry-standard DVDs. One reason cited early on: VHS was considered a more "secure format" against potential industry pirates. Yes, and Michael Jackson really did only have two plastic surgeries, right?

This complaint is not a mark of vanity by any means. Sure, some with press credentials thrive at the opportunity to throw around the fact that big studios send them copies of their big hits for awards consideration, but for most others, the fact that it allows us to see movies that we may have missed during an original theatrical run or would not have been able to reach otherwise is much more a reason to cherish the privilege. Screeners are a promotional tool, not a source of an industry crisis, and the basic facts back that up. Any insider with half a brain would be able to prove, in fact, that nearly 95 percent of all known cases of piracy happen either in a cutting room or directly in the theater, in which the casual moviegoer can conceal a video camera and simply copy the picture directly off the projection screen. With that kind of quick and easy opportunity at their disposal, do you think a vast majority of pirates are going to take the time to track down studio copies? Studio copies, I might add, that have come imbedded with relentless security features (including tracking devices) in the recent years? Gimme a break.

Valenti's resignation this fall seems to have made all traces of a possible screener ban obsolete. I am getting to recall a great film like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" again without having to track down a special screening at a theater, and movies that I have missed in the recent months are slated to start showing up in my mail box within the next several days and weeks, ensuring a more comprehensive perspective on this year's possible awards contenders on my part. As press folk, we can't expect this war to be over as long as a man like this remains indirectly dedicated to a misguided cause, but in the meantime, at least we're being treated like children at Christmas instead of test pilots for prison uniforms

Written by DAVID KEYES

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