Piracy concerns destroying independent cinema

Many issues squeeze the world of arts on a daily basis: increased competition, reduced public interest, disappearing donors, censorship and fewer performing spaces. But in the United States in 2003, few issues are as pressing or profound as piracy.

With the most dramatic decision yet concerning the issue of online piracy, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has banned the use of screeners for the upcoming Academy Awards season. In doing so, the academy is signing the death sentence of independent cinema.

Every awards season in Hollywood, the same routine of campaigning preoccupies the major studios. It begins with getting a movie a wide release, moves forward to lobbying academy members for nominations and then culminates in studios vying for the win. For distributors of a film, an Oscar not only means prestige but also an increased take at both the box office and video store.

An essential part of securing a nomination is getting members to see the movie. Wide releases, such as last year’s “Gangs of New York” or this year’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” have little problem with that task. They typically open in more than 3,000 theaters across the country and are seen by millions within a week.

But smaller, independent releases, such as this year’s “Raising Victor Vargas,” “The Magdalene Sisters” or “Charlotte Sometimes,” open in only a few theaters across the country. Never heard of them? You’re not alone. The saving grace for these releases is the awards process, which brings attention to films such as “American History X” and “Being John Malkovich” that would otherwise wallow in obscurity.

These films cannot rely on academy voters making their way to one of a few theaters but must instead send out videotapes and DVDs, called screeners, which expose voters to films they otherwise would not see.

The piracy issue relates to screeners that are leaked to the public (usually by industry insiders), copied and then posted on the Internet, sometimes before their start dates. This results in fewer people heading to the theater. To avoid the same fate as the music industry, Hollywood has been aggressively fighting piracy, and banned screeners this year to avoid online circulation of these films.

The unintended consequences of this decision are profound. For the sake of argument, we will use the independent film “Raising Victor Vargas.” Before this decision, copies of “Vargas” would have been mailed to voters and had a fair chance of securing a nomination. With this year’s altered rules, the only voters who will see “Vargas” are those who made it to a film festival or saw the film during its extraordinarily limited release.

Basically, the film doesn’t have a chance.

Suddenly the true effects of piracy become clear. Because the limited-release “Vargas” can no longer send out screeners and will not receive any high-profile nominations, it becomes an unprofitable venture. Major studios with independent feature wings (Twentieth Century Fox has Fox Searchlight; Columbia Pictures has Sony Pictures Classics; Disney has Miramax) will no longer see smaller releases as a wise business decision and will stop making these independent features.

The result will be the same as it is in the music world. The cost of piracy has changed the financial dynamics of the industry, and smaller, independent films will no longer be seen as profitable. As such, most major studios will stop producing them. Sure, indie studios such as Lions Gate Films and Focus Features will continue the effort, but the market will become much smaller.

It is becoming clear that the overreactions to piracy affect far more than just the downloading of the most recent Eminem single. It is an issue affecting numerous industries and is eliciting reactions from corporations and studios that will harm the greater arts world.

Reactions to piracy in the music world will result in fewer independent artists and more such as Britney Spears. And now, with Hollywood’s crackdown on screeners, the most dominant U.S. art form will suffer as well. There will be far fewer edgy films such as “Raising Victor Vargas” and more safe bets like the profitable “Mr. Deeds” and “Daddy Day Care.”

The screeners decision is a devastating blow to the world of independent cinema. It cheapens the movie industry as a whole, diminishes the meaning of the Academy Awards and hurts everyone who loves to see meaningful, substantive films.

Yes, piracy matters, but at some point we must question if our reaction to the threat isn’t more devastating than the threat itself.

Steven Snyder’s column usually appears alternate Thursdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]