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By Film Threat Staff | October 3, 2003

A letter from Jeff Dowd to Jack Valenti, the MPAA, Academy members, the film community and all those interested in maintaining cinematic democracy and the free enterprise system, regarding the Academy screeners ban.
Hey, Jack. Let’s think twice. It’s alright. It can indeed still be a “Wonderful Life.”

I believe in the better side of almost all human beings. So I believe that Jack Valenti and the Studio heads are genuinely trying to address the issue of piracy by curtailing Academy DVD and VHS screeners. But they are not the only ones who care about piracy and their rush into the “Short-Sighted Studio Solution” without consulting their own staff and the rest of the movie business community is not necessarily the best or even an effective way to combat piracy. It certainly is not in the best interest of the artists (who they are trying to protect), the movie-going public, society and even the bottom line profits both short and long term of the studios and their shareholders. People sometimes don’t look at the big picture and often take actions hastily. Unfortunately the “MPAA Studio solution” was an ill-conceived rush to action that will do much more harm than good. I am fully confident that the studio heads and Jack Valenti and the MPAA are now hearing from the community and will re-consider and postpone the well-intentioned but short-sighted solution. Why? Because they are good people, who are used to making adjustments all the time.
What are the stakes? They are actually nothing short of artistic freedom, artists’ careers, free enterprise, democracy and even the betterment of individuals and society that are empowered by movies. One could even say the future of certain individuals, families, communities, our country and even the planet have been helped by certain movies. People saw those movies because of the way a process of cinematic democracy has allowed many movies to be seen by bigger audiences as the word of mouth, media support and awards helped the movies’ audience expand and has given the distributors the confidence to risk more money on marketing which in turn made the movies even bigger successes. Big claims. You betcha! Let us make the case.
We are in the communication business. I implore Jack Valenti and the studio heads to communicate with all the intelligent and concerned people within their own companies including their specialized “classics” divisions for more creative solutions. These are some of the best and the brightest people in the world inside the big studios and their specialized divisions–you’re paying them–you recognize their talent–talk to them. Yesterday, one studio exec (one of the very best and most profitable in the business) shared with me his fear of speaking out or offering other solutions because the CEO of the studio (who happens also to be a good guy) had signed on to the Short-Sighted Studio Solution. Two time Academy Award winner Waldo Salt once said to me “it is the chair not the man.” In other words the chair and the pressure that come with being a CEO don’t always bring out the best. Imagine being at a company with staggering debt incurred by parent companies like AOL Time Warner (was it $99 billion?) and Vivendi (was it $24 billion?). This happened through little to no fault of the film company CEO whose division was often in profit. But it creates an atmosphere of fear. This is not the time to have people living in fear of discussions which lead to short-sighted solutions.

How about talking to Academy members about this? These folks are bright, visionary and creative. It appears that most Academy members, who certainly care about intellectual property rights, profits they helped create, and their job future are shocked, appalled and very troubled by the hasty MPAA actions and they would prefer a suspension of this action and an opportunity to help find and execute the better solutions.

Were the talent agencies and managers, who certainly fight for the people they represent, properly consulted? They understand career trajectory. They were appalled by this knee jerk “Studio Solution.” They too would like to be part of a fair and effective solution.

We have many technically brilliant problem solvers in our business who can help and have ideas about how to solve this with encoded DVD’s etc. Let’s get them into the discussion as well.

Let’s look at the big picture.

I want to ask Mister Valenti and the studio heads to pause and re-watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” and remember one of its wonderful lessons– how one person’s life touches so many others. We in the movie business have the amazing opportunity to do that everyday.

For the sake of argument, accept what the heads of many of the specialized distribution companies, directors, writers, journalists, producers, actors, agents, managers, etc. are saying: actors like Billy Bob Thorton, Hillary Swank, Frances McDormand, Halle Berry and Adrien Brody most likely would not have been nominated or won if not for the way the screeners helped democratize the process and level the playing field. That’s just a few “best actors.” What about supporting actors, writers, directors, smaller pictures, etc. that need recognition even more.

Let’s back up and look at how this all works.

It starts with a kind of grassroots cinematic democracy and freedom of the press. Many of the indie films and even studio films that are not high concept films but “specialized films” begin the distribution process with them being championed at film festivals or in smaller platform releases. Look at the films that were at Sundance, Cannes or Toronto over the last 20 years and you will see a direct relationship between films and careers that started there or were given a big boost there. Festivals are cinematic bazaars. The cinematic democracy and freedom of the press start with strong word of mouth and the media championing films and artists’ work. Ask Hillary Swank or the Fox Searchlight execs about how it worked with “Boy Don’t Cry” or Halle Berry or Lionsgate’s Tom Ortenberg about how they used word of mouth and media support and how that led to Halle winning the Academy Award. Harvey and Bob Weinstein at Miramax or Tom Bernard and Michael Barker at Sony Classics can cite dozens of examples. Ask David Linde and James Schamus at Universal Focus and Adrien Brody about “The Pianist.” Or Bingham Ray and Michael Moore about “Bowling for Columbine.” Mark Urman of thinkfilms will tell you about a screening in LA of “Spellbound” that was hosted by Michael Eisner, a family friend of the director, Jeffrey Blitz, that I attended with my older daughter. Only 200 people were there. It was the tapes and DVD’s that made the difference.

You can even ask people with specialized studio films like Russell Crowe, Curtis Hansen and Kevin Spacey or Warner’s Dan Fellman about “LA Confidential” or Kevin Spacey and Terry Press of Dreamworks about “American Beauty.”

We could actually give hundreds of examples of how, when given the opportunity, the public and the media embrace and champion films, and that results in Independent Spirit Awards, SAG, DGA, WGA, Critics Awards and Academy Awards, profitable box office, ancillaries, foreign sales as well as careers being launched and boosted. It helps box office and DVD’s at least for the “smaller” films—which then become some of the bigger and most profitable films.

What about the argument that people who don’t go to free screenings are lazy? Bull. If you are a working Academy member, Guild member or a journalist you may be able to make it to the top ten or 20 movies, but can you make it to number 11 or 21. Hey, what if you are a parent? Who is kidding who? You cannot be a good working parent and have the time to make it to all the free screenings. I am a parent with two daughters. What’s highest on my theatrical priority list? To go to the theater with my kids, which this year happens to be some of my favorite and most inspiring movies– “Finding Nemo,” “Whale Rider,” “Winged Migration,” “Freaky Friday,” and “School of Rock.” Do working parents have the time to go discover a great new writer at the theater or a supporting actor who might be the next Adrien Brody or even Jack Nicholson? What about the older Academy members? What about the people that don’t live in New York or LA? What about the short release window of many films in the fall? I’m a former exhibitor who helped champion better sight, sound and seating in theaters–but I’m also a realist and if you want more people seeing movies in theaters then you need the early champions and some of them need to see it on screeners. If you want bigger DVD sales this is one of the best ways to do it.

It has yet to be proved that stopping the Academy screeners will stop piracy and increase profitability. Even Mr Valenti says “Anything across the board that reduces piracy by one-half of 1 percent I am anxious to do.” Please, sir, don’t become “Jumpin Jack off the cliff Valenti.” Please demonstrate to the movie community and the public that this is right before acting so hastily. And please take time to seek better counsel and ask at what cost. You’re a smart enough and caring enough and big enough man to admit that your good intentions may not produce good results.

Empirical fact: we can actually document evidence when the process of word of mouth and media support was allowed to embrace certain films and the great work of the artists that created these films–we can chart how this worked and actually show how this resulted in the expanded release and profitability of these films. The people that distributed these films will attest that the process of using screeners both leveled the playing field and allowed for cinematic democracy and cinematic freedom of the press and the flowering and growing of the free enterprise system. And they got the numbers to back it up.

Mr . Valenti may not realize it yet but he has inadvertently fueled the fire and overnight made piracy a “screw you” to the big boys cause, because the perception of the media and the public is that the studios are pushing the indies and essentially their own children aside because of their profitability fears. One of the reasons kids started Napstering music was because they thought it was a way to get back at the big record companies. Jack, if you want to win the hearts and minds of the public, especially young people–as you are trying to do with your other positive educational initiatives–you unfortunately just made a big u-turn. But it isn’t too late to let all of us in the industry (those people who create and support movies many of whom are at the studios) help you turn back around before you go off the cliff. Because we aren’t going off with you. Not in America. Not now. Not ever. Jack–I mean this sincerely–this is one of the biggest tests of your remarkable life–to see if you are able to admit that you unfortunately made a mistake, not get defensive and open up and let us help you. If you do that – as Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys sings “Don’t worry baby–everything’s gonna be all right.”

I beg you Jack Valenti to remember when you stood by President Johnson and fought for the Civil Rights Bill because you understood how important democracy for all is in this country.

In this Wonderful Life we live–many of us in the movie business believe that in a world full of fear, despair, crisis, confusion, etc that movies can an entertain and at the same time often fill our spiritual tank and empower us to lead better and more fulfilling lives.

Robert Redford was given a special Academy Award recently. Do I think that “Ordinary People” helped someone out there? Absolutely. I can name a young depressed teenage girl from Seattle who saw it three times and it changed her life. Do we know that films and filmmakers that were discovered at Sundance, where they were embraced by the public and the media, have entertained, touched and inspired people? Definitely! Would Steven Soderbergh have been nominated for two movies in the same year without the trajectory of cinematic democracy that started at Sundance with “Sex, Lies and Video, Tape?” Would the fine work of Benicio Del Toro have been nominated and won the Academy Award without Academy screeners? Ask him? Ask yourselves?

What about the “Spellbound” story? Across America it has become a hit. Teachers, kids, parents, community leaders will all tell you how important it has been. It will become an evergreen DVD. That alone negates this whole MPAA effort. Mark Urman of thinkfilms has been one of the strongest opponents because he knows that even if thinkfilms is not ruled by the MPAA, “Spellbound” could have ended up at a company like Sony Classics that is an MPAA member. It so happens, Sony Classics handled “Winged Migration,” another great success. Is the MPAA going to prohibit them from sending out screeners to the next “Spellbound” or “Winged Migration” or “Bowling for Columbine?” Is that democratic? Why do you think the indies are so outraged?

Steven Spielberg—you’re a great parent and a great filmmaker—please turn this around and make sure the MPAA doesn’t rush into action and do something that will keep kids from seeing films like “Spellbound” and “Winged Migration.” And keep us from having the pleasure of seeing those films with our kids just like we did when we saw “ET.”

In the Variety October 2 issue Jack Valenti said: “There are no sanctions except that people will be breaking their good faith and word. They’ll be breaking something they pledged they will do and if the break it they should be ashamed of themselves.” I am a Jew and my father was half Catholic. I am also a student of history. If another movie like “The Pianist” comes along, should whoever signed this MPAA proposed Solution from Universal “be ashamed” if James Schamus and David Linde of Universal Focus send out screeners and that results in many more people around the world seeing the picture? Or is there something more important—letting people see the human cost of the Holocaust so there will not be another one. It was only last year that we saw what happened with “The Pianist” thanks to screeners and that is one reason the Universal Focus folks are some of the most vociferous and articulate critics of the half-baked MPAA Solution. Are you suggesting that if there was a “serious movie” that people may not rush out to the theaters to see like “Schindler’s List” or “Life is Beautiful” screeners shouldn’t be sent out for fear of piracy? How about “Remember the Titans,” a great entertaining and healing movie that helps show how people from different races can get along. How about “Gandhi?” Should we not try to send out screeners for a movie like that if we thought it would result in more people seeing the movie? What if next year there is a movie that is set in the Middle East that actually might help the situation out in some way? What about an environmental movie? A gay movie? A family story? Doesn’t this call for a bit more thinking and communicating?

In this Wonderful Life what can we look forward to in the future thanks to cinematic democracy? People enjoy discovering and championing films, but the trajectory, the expansion will be severely undercut and in many cases destroyed if the Academy Awards don’t have the grassroots democracy as a key element.

Jack–do you see the parallel with how democracy works when it works best in politics and how cinematic democracy works?

Here is the short term solution for this year: In this free enterprise system why not let the producers and each distribution company decide for themselves if they want to send out screeners or not? Without reprisals! Especially sophisticated or subtle ones—the studios should encourage their specialty divisions to have the freedom to do business their way. Fox Searchlight which is on an incredible roll should not be muzzled nor should Universal Focus, Paramount Classics, Sony Classics, Miramax, etc. If the Warners and Matrix folks decide not to send out screeners that is their choice. If the Universal Focus folks decide to do it with “Lost in Translation” that is their choice. If New Line Says no to “Lord of the Rings” okay, but Fine Line/HBO may want to do it with “American Splendor.” Since when did the MPAA become the Supreme Court, Congress and the Federal Trade Commission rolled into one?

If you ask the specialty distribution heads they almost all say they would like to do it because they are not as concerned about the trade off with piracy because they know it will boost DVD sales at the end of the day–not the other way around. So ask them why they don’t just do it anyway and they all respond that they truly believe they will be fired and they know their parent companies will be face heavy fines from the MPAA. So on October 1, they formed a “study group” so they wouldn’t face reprisals.

A future dictated by fear and short-sighted solutions is not the answer. Communication is the solution. Let’s communicate, make great pictures, let cinematic democracy and free enterprise thrive and have a Wonderful Life for ourselves and our children. And isn’t that what it’s really all about.

And Jack. After you talk to everyone else in the film community and listen to them and look at “It’s a Wonderful Life” and get inspired and remember other things must go into the equation—then go visit your grandchildren and watch “Spellbound” with them. They’ll help you do the right thing and get the proper balance. Because you are a good guy and they know it—and we do too! All of us passionate folks screw up sometimes. But also we have you to thank for taking this bold initiative—it was just too bold. So let’s all help each other to focus and communicate and do it in a flexible, sensible way. If we can agree to communicate better then we can work together to solve this.

Academy President Frank Pierson once wrote a line in “Cool Hand Luke”: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” The stakes are too high. We must communicate better and then act together.

Jeff Dowd

The Dude abides
Jeff Dowd has been part of the independent and studio film world for 30 years. He is a self-described “bridge builder from the filmmakers to the public.” He has been an exhibitor, distributor, producer, producer’s rep, who was there at the start of the Sundance Institute. He is currently working with Neil Young on his film “Greendale” and writing a script with Preston Sturges Jr. called “Nifty,” a revolutionary paradigm shift family action movie about what is possible in the near future. In, “The Big Lebowski” Jeff Bridges, played a character, “the Dude” loosely based upon what Jeff Dowd was for awhile way back when.
He is proud to have two daughters –8 and 11 years old.

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