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DVD divide before Oscar race

Los Angeles, Oct. 3 (Reuters): Independent filmmakers whose movies like Monster’s Ball have made Oscar history in recent years were up in arms yesterday over a ban by major movie studios to end the practice of sending videos and DVDs to Academy Award voters.

The Motion Picture Association of America, the trade group representing the major studios, stuck to the ban, however, warning member studios that any of their divisions sending out tapes or DVDs would violate that policy — for fear that they might fall into the hands of video pirates.

“No screeners of any kind are allowed to be sent out. Once an exemption is made, the barn door is wide open,” the MPAA said in a letter faxed to members and signed by chief Jack Valenti.

The Valenti letter responded to a New York meeting by several specialty film units of the major studios — those groups that crank out many Oscar contenders — in which ways to circumvent the ban were discussed, according to published reports.

However, a spokeswoman for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., which is an MPAA member and operates the United Artists specialty film label with award hopefuls like the soon-to-be released Pieces of April, characterised those reports as “inaccurate.”

“The divisions were trying to reach out to the independent filmmakers to see if they could find alternatives,” she said. “MGM and UA are 100 per cent behind Jack Valenti.”

While the specialty labels such as Walt Disney Co.’s Miramax Films or Vivendi Universal Focus Features will adhere to the ban, for now, non-MPAA members and independents see it as severely hurting them on the cusp of Oscar season. “The feeling is that the rules have changed suddenly and there is no chance to respond,” said Michelle Byrd, executive director of independent film group, IFP/New York.

The Oscars, or Academy Awards, are the US film industry’s top honours given out each year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy has no part in issuing the tapes.

While the MPAA ban does not extend to independent films, the makers are concerned that should they comply for solidarity in the battle against copyright piracy — the reason the MPAA gave for its ban — their chances for winning Oscars would diminish.

Because so many movies compete for awards, it is difficult for all Academy voters to see them in theatres. As a result, the the independents, studios and specialty divisions, all mail videos and DVDs to Oscar voters to watch at home.

Independents say their low-budget films which play in few theatres, such as Lions Gate’s Monsters’ Ball, may never have been widely seen had it not been for screening videos and DVDs.

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