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THE 'ON CRACK' FILES: Isn't it time someone explained the world to Jack Valenti?

by Chris Parry

The film criticism world was stunned this week when MPAA honcho Jack Valenti decided that it was time to fight the scourge of film piracy head on - and the way to do that would be to stop the studios from sending screeners to film critics and Academy members. Yes, that's right, while the recording industry is fighting piracy by suing those who download illegal copies of their product, the film industry is taking on the bandits by restricting what goes out to film critics and Oscar voters. What the hell are they thinking? Does Jack Valenti really think Roger Ebert is spending his evenings putting The Real Cancun on Kazaa? Does he honestly suspect Elvis Mitchell of padding his paycheck by selling his School of Rock screener on eBay? And does anyone on the planet think that the Academy voters, in between making films and getting hip replacements, are using screeners of The Animal to keep their Christmas costs down? Has Valenti gone insane? Is he finally as nutso as he looks? The answer, undeniably, is yes. What's truly startling is that the studios are following this self-crowned emperor of all things film headlong into the abyss of stupidity.

Film critics are a hardy bunch. They go out and take in 10AM screenings of awful films you wouldn't pay money to see - and some that, surprisingly, you would. We've watched Scooby Doo, the Master of Disguise, Anger Management, National Security, Bad Boys II, Gigli, Juwanna Mann, Boat Trip, Marci X, Under the Tuscan Sun, Prey for Rock'n'Roll, The Order, My Boss's Daughter, The Fighting Temptations and every film made by Rob Schneider. Truly, for the film critic, life can sometimes be hell. And most critics aren't even paid enough to warrant standing such punishment.

Why do they do it? They do it so you don't have to. They sit through Pluto Nash (well, they would have if the film had been screened for them) so they can say to you all, "save yourselves." And more often than not, you ignore us, spend a hundred million on utter crap, then complain that movies are really bad these days.

But there is one time of the year when the critics manage to make a real impact. A time when the best little films that were overlooked by the big marketing campaigns and none-too-fussy audiences get a chance to shine. That time of the year is Awards Season.

In preparation for this time of year, smaller companies run off thousands of copies of their movies on VHS and DVD and send them out to critics, Academy members, and anyone else who might be able to say "hey, I just saw this great little movie that never made it into wide release and it deserves your attention."

And it works. Without screeners, nobody would have voted for Marcia Gay Harden as 2001's Best Supporting Actress since, judging by the box office, nobody actually paid to see her film Pollock. The Wonder Boys was a film released small in the dead of February, so not only did barely anyone see it, but those that did see it had forgotten about it a year later. But the distributors eventually realized that they were sitting on gold when a positive rush of reaction from screener viewers saw them decide to re-release the film at award time and duly claim a bunch of nominations.

The Quiet American, The Pianist, Far From Heaven, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Rabbit Proof Fence, The 25th Hour, Talk To Her, Bowling For Columbine, these are just the movies from last year that managed to do well in the awards season despite small, or even tiny, box office hauls. Why? Because of screeners.

Gosford Park, Monsters Ball, Iris, In the Bedroom, Sexy Beast, Memento, Mulholland Drive, Ghost World, The Man Who Wasn't There - these undeniably excellent 2002 award-nominated films all did great business, some on video, some still running on the big screen, because of their awards buzz. In The Bedroom and Gosford Park would have been largely ignored films had they not been lining up award nominations like nine-pins, but that Oscar buzz saw them earn millions more in profit than they otherwise would have done.

How did this happen? Screeners.

See, those in LA seem to forget this very important point, but not every film makes it out to Kansas and Dubuque and Vermont and Vancouver and Texarkana. As much as the studios think that by putting on a few LA and New York 'Academy Voter' screenings in December they're fulfilling their obligations to the film world, nothing could be further from the truth. Critics' societies in Boston, Vegas, Seattle, Toronto, Philadelphia and many more have their own awards which can help a little film in the run-up to Oscar time gather some much-needed press and surprise box office steam.

But these people might have missed a good chunk of the films in release this year. If a critic shares column inches with a second critic at the same newspaper, there's no reason to see EVERY film released. A couple of weeks holiday could see an Oscar contender missed as it dips in and out of theaters quickly due to bad marketing or bad timing. How many critics would have passed on the press screening of Kate and Leopold, yet the film was deemed good enough to earn an Oscar nomination... how many other nominations could it have earned had a wider audience than the 15-year-old pimply schoolgirl demographic bothered to see it?

Have the studios forgotten how valubable these screeners are for their own purposes? Have they simply bowed to the misguided wills of Jack Valenti, even though the actions they're preparing for will see them inevitably hurt their own arthouse arms?

No. Here's what's going on. The Studios are sick of spending large amounts of money telling us that Gangs of New York and Pearl Harbor are the best movies of the year, only to have the screener-watching Academy voters say "no, you are wrong, Gangs of New York and Pearl Harbor sucked."

By taking the ability of film critics and Academy voters to see every small, arthouse, largely ignored movie out of the equation, they're trying to ensure that the only films we'll vote for in large numbers are the films we've all happened to see - the big budget blockbuster, the widely marketed star vehicle, the critically damned box office success.

Before Night Falls, The Contender, Shadow of the Vampire, Almost Famous, You Can Count on Me, Billy Elliot, Pollock, Malena, Quills, Dancer in the Dark - how many of these worthy 2001 Oscar nominees did YOU see in theaters? Not many? Personally, I didn't catch one of them on the big screen, even though I'm a film critic. Without screeners to remind, assist and open me up to things I missed, I would have been stuck voting for Gladiator and Castaway for any awards that year - and let me tell you, I didn't want to vote for either.

Jack Valenti's movie rating system has often been alleged to be favorable for studio releases and harmful to the little guys. As movies like Requiem for a Dream and Happiness get tagged with the box office-crushing NC-17 rating, any Steven Spielberg film with exploding heads and children being eaten by dinosaurs is considered unlucky if it gets a measly PG-13. But Valenti's MPAA, an entirely voluntary organization that was only ever set up as a means to avoid government regulation of films, has clearly now changed tack to do the bidding of its masters in Studio City, and actions such as these will not in any way put the slightest dent in film piracy.

Let's be clear, film piracy is something that should be fought, even though I'll admit to having downloaded the occasional movie to avoid going out at 10AM on a rainy day to watch something like The Real Cancun at a press screening. Am I part of the problem? Maybe so. But when you look at those films being sucked down off Kazaa and the like, one thing is very clear: these aren't screeners.

To prove this point, I went on Kazaa today and downloaded five movies, just to watch the opening five minutes of each. I've already seen all the flicks I pulled down, so this is entirely a research project, not an afternoon of piracy. But since we're talking of piracy:

Film #1: Pirates of the Caribbean. The titles of the files themselves generally give away where these pirated versions came from, and the first one I look over says 'telesynch' in the file name. When I start the flick up, it has numbers running along the bottom of the screen, indicating it came directly from either the editing bay, or the sound mixing board, or at the very least someone who had rough cut access to the film. The one thing we can attest to - this didn't come from a screener tape, it came from the people making the movie, or someone working alongside them.

Film #2: The Hulk. This one became famous when a rough cut of the film hit the internet before the effects work was even finished, and Ang Lee was very ang-ry about that fact. A quick look down the line of options available here shows 'telecine', 'telesynch', 'wp' (workprint) and 'good cam'. I go for the 'good cam' version and, no surprise, the film was shot using a camera positioned by the projector. You can tell this because there are no heads bobbing up and down at the bottom of the screen, which you generally always see if the camera that shot the film was in the audience. Additionally, the sound is good, which would seem to indicate that the camera was plugged into the system showing the actual movie.

Film #3: Hero. For the third film, I picked something not yet in US theaters - Hero - a Jet Li film that is slated for a December release in the US... maybe. The files listed for this film are different to the others mentioned in that they come from the overseas versions of the film. In particular, the one I grabbed was labeled 'DVDRip', meaning it was taken straight off the DVD itself. Not a screener DVD mind you, but the import DVD, as is evidenced by un-Miramaxed version on display. For the American release, Miramax has opted to cut a chunk of the film away so it'll 'play better to American audiences'. Let's just crop the Mona Lisa while we're at it - never liked the background in that painting anyway.

Film #4: Blue Crush. This is an odd case, though not an extremely rare one - the version I downloaded comes subtitled. The voices are American, but the subtitles look to be in Indian, or perhaps Pakistani, with another row of subtitles beneath those that looks like maybe it's Thai or Korean. The audience laughs at times when I can see nothing funny, indicating a cultural difference in perception of humor, and the chatter from those around the guy with the camera leaves no doubt that this pirated version of the film was taken from an overseas screening. An occasional head can be seen moving along the bottom of the screen on its way to a toilet break, so once again, this pirated version of a film was not provided by a critic or Academy voter.

Film #5: School of Rock. Interestingly enough, there are several versions of this film marked 'telecine', 'telesynch', and yes - 'screener'. So I download the screener version and it sure looks like that's where it came from. So maybe the MPAA are right and critic and Academy voter screeners are a big reason for piracy... but wait! Has anyone actually sent School of Rock screeners out to critics? I don't know about Kevin Thomas and Richard Roeper, but no critic I know gets screeners of films just going into general theatrical release, and this flick sure as heck isn't in Oscar contention, so where did this pirated screener come from?

You guessed it - the company that made the film. Or the company promoting the film. Or the company doing the sound mix on the film. Or the record company putting out the soundtrack. Or any number of other businesses who work with and for the studios.

But not critics. Nope, not a one.

Incidentally, I could find no trace of Y Tu Mama Tambien, Talk To Her, Far From Heaven, The Pianist, The Quiet American, Rabbit Proof Fence - you know, those films the critics got screeners of around awards time. You won't find these movies online for free download, at least not easily, and that's maybe the most telling fact of all. The films the critics love and the films they most need to receive are not being pirated - ergo, critics aren't the problem here.

The reality is that the MPAA wants critics to lose their importance, and the studios are a party to that dream. They already refuse to pre-screen the worst films in release, knowing that critics will tell you all not to waste your money, and a recent move towards making critics endure body searches at press screenings so as to avoid the chance they'll sneak in a camera was seen by many as the final humiliation we as an industry would have to endure.

Apparently they were wrong.

So what can be done about film piracy? Well, the Online Film Critics Society (http://www.ofcs.org), an organization that some eight or nine of our writers belong to, has got some suggestions that makes sense. The first is simple enough - encode a unique serial number on the movie itself, or at the very least put one on the tape or disc, to stop that film from being sold on eBay or uploaded to the net. If Focus sends me a screener and I sell it on, they'd be able to quickly figure out where it came from and bar me from ever receiving their product again. The studios could do this right now, but they know what they would find if they did - that the piracy problem comes from their own employees. And who needs that little PR nightmare?

The second option might cost the distributors a little money, but certainly not more than piracy does. They could simply send out a stamped, self-addressed envelope with every screener, along with a request to drop it in the mailbox when we're done viewing it. This seems to work fine for Netflix, a DVD rental company that sends and receives millions of DVDS around the country every month, so if the Studios don't want their screeners falling into the wrong hands, that method would see to it in no uncertain terms.

The third option is to go after those who spread the movies online, which again is pretty easy. An outfit called TMD openly sells memberships for $34.95 that they claim allows subscribers to download thousands of songs, movies and games from them. See for yourself at http://www.tmd-movies.com if you think they're hard to track down, and you can look over the lists of the movies they're stocking while you're at it.

How much are TMD responsible for movie piracy? A quick search of any film title will show you that three out of every four illegal movies you can find online feature the TMD branding, so if the studios really cared about piracy at all, TMD is the most obivous starting point - and quite likely the finishing point too.

As for Jack Valenti, if he really has no better idea about how to tackle piracy than to go after the people with the least amount of time, interest and inclination to engage in the practice, then maybe the moment has come for the studios to show him the door and take control of their own destiny.

I can't name you one single critic, moviemaker or producer who would complain if they did.

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=807
originally posted: 10/02/03 18:47:27
last updated: 09/23/05 00:15:46
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