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Movie Studios Crack Down on Oscar Screening Tapes

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By Bob Tourtellotte

Los Angeles (Reuters) -- Hollywood's major film studios announced on Tuesday they are ending their long-held practice of sending videotapes and DVDs of Oscar contending movies to Academy Award voters in a bid to thwart copyright piracy.

The Motion Picture Association of America, the organization that represents the major studios, said that its members, their specialty divisions and nonmember DreamWorks SKG film studio have agreed to ban the practice this year.

The move comes as a response to the 2002-2003 Oscar season when several tapes and DVDs of films in Oscar contention were copied and appeared for sale on the black market in Asian countries and for download on the Internet.

That fact served as an embarrassment for the U.S. film industry which for years has worked hard to combat illegal copying of videotapes, and is now working feverishly to stem the fast-rising tide of digital piracy on the Internet.

Jack Valenti, long-time chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), told Reuters in an interview that beating digital piracy on the Internet is his No. 1 priority.

"If I can find some place that commits one-half of one percent of piracy, I'm going to plug that hole in the dike," Valenti said.

Big Screen Films

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (news - web sites), which awards the Oscars (news - web sites), said it had nothing to do with the studio system of sending out screeners to Academy members.

In a statement, the Academy added: "We have always urged our members to see the films on big screens the way they were intended to be seen and to base their judgments on the achievements contained in the films on those viewings and not to vote based upon an image seen on the television screen."

Many of the major players in Hollywood are deeply concerned that if the free swapping of digital movies on the Internet becomes as widespread as it has in the music industry, then box office revenues will plunge, leading to lost jobs and a general industry decline.

Some industry players believe that film production and distribution might cease to exist completely.

As a result, the MPAA has begun many programs including public service announcements on television and in movie theaters that spotlight the possibility of lost jobs due to piracy and a project to teach schoolchildren about the dangers of copyright piracy.

But in Hollywood, the move to ban the practice of sending screening tapes and DVDs has raised the ire of many independent film labels with Oscar hopes.

Those companies fund low-budget and art house films that are in fewer theaters and seen by fewer members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars. These distributors may feel compelled to comply with the ban, but doing so would hurt their chances at Oscar time.

"There are going to be complaints, and I'm going to be the villain. I understand that," Valenti said.

He added that if the MPAA hadn't acted after what happened last year, "people would say you got to put your own house in order."

Valenti said that in place of the tapes and DVDs, his studio members "will set up double the amount of screenings" in U.S. theaters to get their films seen by Academy Award voters.

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