According to anyone, Motion Picture Association of America CEO Jack Valenti has already had an embattled year. Faced with unsavory campaigning surrounding the Academy Awards Nominations he moved the ceremony forward 30 days to the consternation of many producers. Then his decree to ban screener tapes from circulation brought up a maelstrom of protests from groups as diverse as independent filmmakers to movie critics. Even the uncomfortable act of addressing movie piracy has been fraught with the expected problems. But the list of controversies will apparently expand, even after his recent announcement to step down as Academy President, as it has become known that he has plans for long range activities.
President Valenti, Film Threat has recently come to learn, is set to embark on a new crusade towards preserving the integrity of Hollywood as the world’s film leader–IMAX Productions now find themselves in the cross hairs of the Academy head. Based on extensive interviews and the acquisition of internal documents, as well as numerous off-the-record comments by Academy members, it can now be determined that Jack Valenti not only is concerned for the sanctity of legal precedents but he may actually regard IMAX and its revolutionary technology as a genuine threat. His fear is that an industry-wide shift towards IMAX’s 70mm film format will require tremendous capital outlays, from the purchase of tens-of-thousands of high-tech projectors, to retrofitting movie theaters across the country, and even the high expense of producing film stocks for wide release titles that can number into the thousands. Valenti appears to be trying to set into motion actions that will continue far beyond his tenure.
Reactions in Hollywood to these revelations have ranged from guarded to skeptical, but there have been whispers along the streets of Burbank and the studio back lots for at least the past few years. As an example, back in February at the Scientific and Technological Oscar ceremony, amid all the raves for Jennifer Garner there could also be heard muted conversations revolving around the IMAX controversy and the ramifications it may have for their careers. The irony in all of this speculation is that they were discussing the possibility of a vanguard medium coming under fire from the very governing body that was celebrating technical achievement on that same night.
Irony seems to be the prevailing emotion in much of this debate. Members of the Academy front office have said that for over six months Valenti has lobbied extensively for their legal advisors to scour law books to find a reason to go after IMAX, but he had been tight-lipped about the reasons behind the crusade. When employees began to ask each other what might be the purpose of targeting IMAX many arrived at the same suggestion—that IMAX had gotten too good. A recent example is their newest feature, “NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience”, which in its third week of release had a per screen average that was nearly double that of the #1 film, “Scooby Doo 2”. Rumblings have begun around the Academy that maybe Valenti is misguided, and that maybe he should focus on bettering current film standards rather than trying to bring down an industry pioneer.
Legal action, not revolution, appears to be Jack’s preferred plan of action, however. A film journalist familiar with the arcane machinations of the revered MPAA has stated that Valenti has had this crusade in mind for more than a year. “Jack has been fretting over IMAX for the better part of this new century,” said the reporter, speaking under terms of anonymity. “When the technology first came to light there was a feeling that it was a boondoggle for tech heads and a waste of money. But with the steady growth of IMAX and the slow but noticeable proliferation of their theaters it has become a real concern for Valenti.” When asked specifically what it was that had Jack so worried, the reporter commented, “They have been very successful at what they are doing. Their standard is too high for the industry to employ, and he is worried that demand will force the hand of the major studios. The bottom line is profits are the concern.”
For the time being, the threat of IMAX is not imminent. But the concern inside the Academy is that in the foreseeable future the movie industry will stand to lose greatly if a shift to the IMAX format takes place. One studio head has told this website that he had a conversation with the AMPAS president in which Valenti mentioned directly that, “The IMAX Library of films operates outside the law.” Those words should be studied closely. That is because those exact words appear almost verbatim in an internal AMPAS memorandum, recently obtained by Film Threat. That memo, sent directly to the Academy’s private law firm–Reid-Haring, and Assoc.—states that Valenti wants the firms lawyers to “Comb over any law books you can think of that covers our entertainment industry and find a legal precedent that will show that Imax, and their library of film titles, is operating outside of the law. Creative interpretation of any standards, if necessary, can be used, as long as the result can be applied legally in a court room.”
Only now it appears that on this front, Valenti may have succeeded. Another missive from inside the Academy points out that Valenti’s legal team seems to have uncovered an arcane and little known commerce law written many decades ago that centers on, according the document– “preservation of a viable industry model against unwieldy market forces which might provoke insurmountable, if not outright aggressive, challenges to the enterprise of cinema.” Boiled down it basically stipulates that any business that promotes a new technology which can be perceived as being too costly to the industry as a whole must be marginalized as a “specialty” entity. This requires that a business so designated must not exceed a preset threshold percentage of the film market. As Valenti states in another document, “Imax currently operates over 220 of their theaters worldwide, with more than 125 of those in North America. Those are numbers which places IMAX in direct violation of this long standing legislation.”
On this point IMAX, understandably, plays coy. This is surely as a result of not wanting to ruffle the Academy President while also protecting itself from a possible legal tussle in the future. The lone spokesman from that company willing to go on record, Alfred McGuffin, keeps it close to the vest. “At this time, IMAX is aware of no action, legal or otherwise, being taken against this corporation by the AMPAS or any other governing body.” In an attempt to press McGuffin away from his prepared statement he was willing to state that “if these documents, as they are presented—and if they are indeed accurate—represent a legitimate legal challenge I would say that IMAX is in violation of no laws and there is a possibility this might even be indicative of anti-trust violations.”
Legitimate or not, the viewpoint of IMAX will do very little to dissuade Jack Valenti from pursuing what he deems to be a financial jeopardy on the horizon. After all, a nation of upset entertainment journalists did not cause the man to blink, and he also angered no less than Miramax chairman Harvey Weinestein without offering so much as a shrug. The stature of a company such as IMAX probably barely registers on his personal radar. In fact, when speaking to people around Hollywood and inside The Academy you almost get the feeling of a bully picking on the new kid in school. If Valenti forces the issue we may get to see how IMAX handles itself in the schoolyard.
Of course, you can always put together the first letter of each of the above paragraphs to get what we’re really trying to say here.