- There’s no question that the end of the movie-studio “screener ban” is good news. But I can’t help but have mixed feelings about screeners, and the lucky stiffs who have access to them.
Those of you who know me may have heard me talk about my legendary Uncle Johnny. The quintessential Manhattanite, John sees every play on Broadway, catches every major museum exhibition and watches all the buzzy TV shows. I write about him here from time to time, because he also sees – embarrassingly – more rock shows than I do, even as he is just shy of his 60th birthday.
John likes to be ahead of the curve on the arts in general and on the buzzy stuff in particular. If it’s getting written up in the Times, the Voice or, hell, the back of a handbill passed out at a Bowery Ballroom show, John wants to know about it. He and my Aunt Pat are comfortable but not fabulously wealthy; Johnny’s deep knowledge of the arts is paid for not just with money but with an impressive amount of his time and pavement-pounding.
The one chink in Johnny’s cultural armor is his knowledge of movies; there are only so many hours in the day, and he rarely goes to the multiplex. But he’s got a system for that, too. John catches up on awards-caliber movies in a compressed two-month period every year.
He calls his system “The Loop.”
Mover and shaker that he is, Johnny has access to the annual supply of “screeners” sent to members of the Motion Picture Academy. That’s thanks to a lifelong family friend who is a dues-paying Academy member. (This fellow will remain nameless, but you’ve never heard of him. He’s just a meat-and-potatoes, out-of-work actor.)
John’s friend set up the system about a decade ago. Every year around November, this actor circulates his voluminous supply of screeners to his close friends. Hence, “The Loop”: John receives a fat padded envelope stuffed with, say, seven to 10 videotapes and DVDs, watches as many as he can in a week or two, and then passes the salvo to another Loop member, just in time for the next stuffed envelope to hit his doorstep.
In short, Johnny’s friend is exactly the sort of Oscar voter the Academy was targeting with its much-ballyhooed crackdown on screeners this year. You can imagine that my uncle’s friend is the tip of a very large iceberg, especially in buzz-hungry cities like New York and Los Angeles, where everybody wants to borrow an Academy member’s screeners. The Academy was looking to close screener “loops” nationwide. More to the point, they were cracking down on the friends of Academy members who might fancy themselves swashbuckling movie pirates.
This is a laugh: My Uncle Johnny (and, presumably, his 50something peers) know as much about online movie piracy as they do about C++ programming. Nonetheless, I must concede: all it would have taken for a copy of Far from Heaven to have ended up on Kazaa last year would have been for a sneaky, enterprising (and unusually tasteful) teen relative of a Loop member to rip a DVD.
I can’t speak for all of the Loop members, but I know my uncle takes his screener procedures very seriously. In years past, my parents and I have asked to borrow the tapes. Johnny often turns down my requests, asking that I come to his apartment to watch the contraband (which is fair, but the trip from my Brooklyn apartment to his Upper West Side pad is a major schlep). He occasionally relents and lends copies to my 60something folks but demands them back within 24 hours. Mostly, it’s because Johnny respects his actor friend and does not take his priviledges for granted.
But there’s also a little part of Johnny doesn’t want to lose his edge to us hoi polloi. He’s generous enough to share, but he likes being the buzz-meister, the guy in the know. During December and January every year, as I am dragging my ass to theaters to see Oscar-worthy movies in advance of my annual Best Picture predictions, Johnny is calling me every two days, smart and a little smug, asking, “Hey dj’ya see Gangs of New York yet? I thought it was awesome…critics are being too hard on that one…”
So it was with a little bit of schadenfreude that I chuckled when the Academy announced its screener ban in October. Much as I think Jack Valenti is an over-the-hill, out-of-touch ass clown whose fears about piracy are blown absurdly out of proportion, part of me looked forward to the Academy making the buzz-meisters a little less buzzy. If Johnny was going to be conversant in the 2003 Oscar race, he was going to have to drag his ass to the multiplex and pay like the rest of us.
So too would the actors and other well-catered awards voters – journalists, review boards, technicians – who’d gotten used to having their pop culture delivered to their doorsteps. It’s not like these anointed ones were complaining 25 years ago, when VCRs weren’t in most homes, about not having screeners. They just went to the movies – or, at best, a studio-sponsored viewing in a screening room. One way or another, awards voters had to leave their dens.
On an artistic level, screeners are an abomination. Any critic, film historian or cinéaste worth her salt will tell you that theatrical projection is the only way to properly appreciate and assess the art of film. Especially when one is helping to choose the year’s most award-worthy movies – isn’t that the very time at which you should be seeing the candidates the way they were meant to be seen?
Add in the fact that the usual Oscar candidates are contemplative, character-driven pieces with carefully wrought story arcs, and it’s abhorrent when you imagine these homebound voters, watching three-hour epics in between dog walks, or while chatting on the phone. At the very least, you’d think serious journalists, independent film companies and the artsiest filmmakers would be thrilled to do away with screeners.
You’d be wrong. Those groups are the very ones that have mounted the most concerted campaign to oppose the Academy ban and bring screeners back. Just last week, they finally prevailed.
Not only did indie film companies want to keep sending out screeners, they argued – quite convincingly – that their very livelihood relies on screeners. It sounds like an overheated argument, but it’s a fact that the entire indie business model relies on little, Sundance-quality movies earning back their money through buzz and awards – which they won’t get if they aren’t seen. Even in New York City, The Cat in the Hat played on far more screens in its third weekend than Lost in Translation played at its peak.
Journalists, for their part, argue that there are dozens more movies coming out now than can reasonably be seen in theaters. Film production in Hollywood has all but doubled in the last quater-century, and that’s before you throw in the independent films. It’s easy for us to say that critics, who vote on their own year-end awards (New York Film Critics’ Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics, National Board of Review), can damn well get their asses into theaters to do their jobs. But we all know that most of the serious Oscar nominees only hit theaters in the last three months of the year; last year, all five Best Picture nominees came out in the last two weeks of 2002. That’s a lot of compressed viewing in just a few weeks for a journalist who’s constantly on deadline. A healthy human body can run in and out of only so many theaters before collapsing.
As for the filmmakers, they joined the indies’ lawsuit demanding that the ban be rescinded. Of course Martin Scorcese, Robert Altman and the like no doubt prefer their films to be viewed on a big screen, but they are also realists: screeners ensure that their movies will be seen and properly rewarded. It also ensures that smaller film companies, the Newmarkets and Lions Gates willing to take risks on “smaller” movies, will continue to be viable. If you’re Altman and you want to make the next Gosford Park with a studio other than Warner Bros., you want USA Films to continue to exist.
It’s just not worth being a purist when it comes to Oscars – just ask Steven Spielberg. His 1998 film Saving Private Ryan did phenomenally at the box office and probably was seen, by most Academy voters, on the big screen. It was a visceral epic, a feast for the eyes and ears, that could only fully be appreciated in a theater. And it lost Best Picture in 1999, to Shakespare in Love, a semi-artsy, light comic romance that played far better on the VCR at home. (I will leave it to you to decide whether this is a good thing; my fiancée happens to love Shakespare, but I know what film I was rooting for back in ‘99.) Should Spielberg have pushed Ryan harder on screeners? Would it have won? We’ll never know, but let’s just say that Minority Report was one of the screeners my uncle’s friend received last year.
It’s tales like this – of the screener-fueled indie defeating the big studio picture – that gave rise to the most persistent rumor of the two-month screener battle: that the real purpose of the ban was to hurt the indies’ chances at the Oscars, which they have dominated since Miramax’s rise to prominence in the 1990s. With screeners out of the picture, the big studios with movies on lots of screens would dominate the race again, like they did back in the 1950s and ’60s, the days of Ben-Hur and Oliver! – or so went the theory.
This is a pretty wild suspicion, seriously believed by only the most crackpot Hollywood conspiracy theorists. I, for one, firmly believe Jack Valenti really is stupid enough to think Oscar-movie piracy is an epidemic. Then again, when you consider how many pricey big-studio epics have lost Best Picture over the last decade, from Saving Private Ryan to Lord of the Rings, it’s not an entirely foolish theory.
Anyway, if you’re a fan of non-studio, non-braindead movie entertainment, there’s no question the good guys won last week. Lost in Translation and Shattered Glass will now have an opportunity to be seen by as many Academy voters, Golden Globe voters, critics and guilds as The Last Samurai. Next month’s Sundance film festival will continue to be a viable market for studios to find awards-caliber pictures. The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott will not suffer a coronary while running between uptown and downtown screening rooms.
But quality film will continue to make its exodus from the theater to the living room.
Two weeks into December, my Uncle Johnny doesn’t know yet whether there’ll be a Loop this year. Among its latest, more Gestapo-like tactics, the Motion Picture Academy is requiring voting members, like John’s friend, to sign affadavits swearing that screeners will not leave their possession. Still, I know my uncle is far too resourceful to allow his contraband source to dry up, his edge to dull. It’s like an quote I once read in an article about retail sales promotions – as one retailer commented, “Everybody wants to think they have an angle.”