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Ballad of Narayama

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Foolish moves doomed to fail

Occasionally the movie industry comes up with a truly boneheaded idea. Jack Valenti unveiled a doozy last week: He announced that signatories of the Motion Picture Association of America would be forbidden to send out the thousands of advance DVD "screeners" that jam the year-end mailboxes of Academy members and critics compiling Best 10 lists.

His reason is that screeners have been used by video pirates to make illegal copies of movies. That is true. It is also true that pirates will find a way to steal prints anyway.

The Valenti Decree would cripple the chance of a small independent film getting an Oscar nomination. With dozens of films opening at year-end, the Academy population lacks the time and energy to attend all those screenings in theaters. The DVDs pile up at home, and when the buzz turns hot on a title, they look at it.

Valenti's ban was greeted with howls of outrage by the heads of the independent distribution companies, even while it was being greeted with joy by the heads of major studios. This is a no-brainer: If voters cannot see the best indie work, they will be forced to vote for major studio work. Such recent Oscar winners as "In the Bedroom," "The Hours," "The Pianist," "Adaptation" and "Far from Heaven" might not survive such a practice.

"Dear Jack," wrote the respected director and industry leader Norman Jewison, "When every Academy member can view all the films in contention, then it's a fair and even playing field. However, when the small independent film--which depends on its artistic appeal rather than wide commercial distribution by an MPAA member--is denied access, the playing field becomes unfair and uneven... Artistic accomplishments in film should not be compromised in an effort to protect the interests of the major studios."

That's the same Norman Jewison whose "Moonstruck," "A Soldier's Story," The Hurricane" and "Agnes Of God" would have been penalized by the Valenti Decree.

Luckily, the solution to this problem lies in the Disposable Video Disc, which self-destructs after one playing. Academy members could be sent disposable discs, good for one viewing and watermarked with their names. If they wanted to give it to pirates, everybody would know where it came from, and they could be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, as explained in the ominous "FBI Warning" at the beginning of every disc.

Valenti says disposable discs are a bad idea, because if only a few discs get out, they can be reproduced endlessly. Yes, but his idea doesn't protect against that very possibility.

Last summer critics arriving at advance screenings were searched by security guards. Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer refused the indignity and billed the studio for her lost taxi fare. Did the studios think professional critics would risk the loss of their jobs and criminal charges in order to smuggle a video camera into a theater and tape off the screen in full view of all of their colleagues? At the "Finding Nemo" screening, my turkey sandwich was inspected by a rent-a-cop. Were thousands of patrons in the nation's multiplexes also searched? Don't make me laugh.

Here's a bright idea. The major studios, fearful of piracy, simply need not send out DVDs. The indies, who count on them as the cornerstones of their Oscar campaigns, can continue to send them out. As Jewison notes in his letter to Valenti, "Piracy to a small independent film seeking an audience is simply good word of mouth."

What are the changes of a two-tier DVD system? Zero, because the majors want an uneven playing field only if it favors them. This fact, obvious and incontrovertible, exposes the moral decay and mercenary cynicism that underlies the Valenti Decree. His new rule is so bad I expect it to be withdrawn in a week. The remarkable thing is that Valenti and his masters were unsophisticated enough to suggest it in the first place.

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