risky business

Screener ban rare loss for the winning Valenti

Leave it to Jack Valenti to have the last word. mThe longtime steward of the MPAA died April 26, but Harmony Books has just published his memoir, "This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood."

A born raconteur and a man who clearly enjoyed the power of language, the Texas-born Valenti looks back over his life — his stint as an Air Force B-52 pilot in World War II, his right-hand-man role as a special assistant to President Johnson — before taking up the subject of the MPAA, whose chairman he became in 1966. His tenure saw the creation of the voluntary ratings system, with Sumner Redstone, then an exhibitor heading the National Association of Theatre Owners, proving a key ally in its creation. He writes of opening foreign countries to American movies and of his long-running battle to postpone the repeal of the Fyn-Syn Rules that kept networks from entering production.

But inevitably, he comes to the great screener war. The MPAA's attempt to ban screeners ignited an uproar in September 2003, when Valenti announced the new policy. Resolved in a matter of months, it actually represented just a blip in his 38 years at the organization. But clearly, as he sat down to write his memoirs, the painful memories still rankled.

As Valenti reconstructs the controversy, he became galvanized when he learned in August 2003 that half of the 68 titles distributed via screeners in 2002 had given rise to illegal DVDs. He vowed to stop their distribution.

But because awards season was approaching, Valenti announced the new policy in September after having consulted only with studio heads. In retrospect, he admits, by not having spent more time consulting with the industry at large in advance of the change, he violated one of the basic tenants he had learned from LBJ, "Never surprise your friends and allies."

Valenti had stepped on a tripwire. Filmmakers rose up to complain that without screeners, smaller movies wouldn't enjoy an equal playing field. On Oct. 10, more than 100 directors signed an open letter to Valenti opposing the new policy. "To say I was pained is to undershoot the mark," Valenti acknowledges. "I was sick at heart."

With the help of Frank Pierson, then president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Valenti tried to forge a compromise that would have seen screeners go just to members of the Academy. But the uproar continued. Valenti recalls a phone call with Harvey Weinstein, then of Miramax Films, along with Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker and Focus Features' James Schamus, all of whom opposed the ban. Although the participants agreed to keep the conversation private, it was leaked to the New York Times the next day. Valenti blamed Weinstein, though Weinstein denied being the source of the leak.

Fearing an antitrust lawsuit that ultimately did materialize, Valenti called another meeting of studio chiefs in November. He urged a new plan that would have seen a restricted number of screeners go to the Academy and several other groups. But by then Valenti could not persuade the chiefs to reverse course.

Finally, the case went before a federal district court judge. Valenti contends that the judge did not appreciate the central issue he advanced: the protection of creative property. The MPAA lost the case.

"To me, the whole enterprise was a sad piece of business," Valenti recalls about one of his rare defeats. "The only good news was that I was damn glad it was over. It was a bitch."