The 401st Blow :: Thoughts On Media

On Dinosaurs (or why the AMPAS hates you)

Posted in Distribution, Policy by Noah Harlan on July 16, 2009

The AMPAS wants to destroy independent filmmaking in America.  Let’s just come right out and admit it.

I have always assumed that the AMPAS was a benign, if slightly main-stream focussed institution that generally supported cinema but, frankly, is best known for handing out little gold statuettes of naked men. There have been interesting disputes over the years with the AMPAS over issues like the screener ban. But that was really an MPAA issue more than an AMPAS issue and the idea that the MPAA (and the MMPS) are in opposition to the indies is not so surprising.  But the AMPAS? I guess they are just lackeys of the studios and the exhibitors.

For those that haven’t followed this, here’s the quick recap. Mark Lipsky, of Gigantic Releasing, wrote a letter to Sid Ganis, President of the AMPAS, complaining about Rule 12.  Specifically, Rule 12, Paragraph III, Section A, #9 which states: “No type of television or Internet transmission of a contending documentary feature may occur anywhere in the world until 60 days after the completion of the New York and Los Angeles seven-day qualifying runs.”

Mark’s argument, which is completely correct, is that in today’s marketplace, demanding that independent films, with limited marketing budgets, and documentaries in particular, wait two months from their initial release to appear on any other platform essentially destroys any hope most of these films have to ever make their money back. In essence, the AMPAS has declared war on day & date. But let’s be clear, Day & Date is the ONLY future for most indie films, documentary or feature.

With the collapse of distributor after distributor and the remaining few paying mere pennies for films (it’s common for an indie feature to see most MG offers well below $100K) the imperative of making your money in your quickest window has never been greater. If you release your film on screens in New York & LA and are able to get good reviews and a bit of press, without a huge marketing campaign months later all those people who saw that publicity but had no access to your film (ie: those living in Atlanta or Austin or Detroit…) will never see your work and you will never earn that little bit of revenue which will serve to repay your investors and allow you to make another movie. Your career has been killed and Sid Ganis is the man with the ax.

So, Mark writes his letter (and it should be noted that Mark’s pleading ignorance of the rule is a lame detail, he should have known better) and lodges his complaint. And then, a few days later (after a second letter from Mark) comes a response from Bruce Davis, Executive Director of the AMPAS. Bruce Davis is either trying to ruin independent cinema or a moron.  Here are the highlights of his letter and some of my thoughts:

“Your accusation that the Academy is falling behind the digital curve is off the mark. That curve is a fast-moving and a slippery one we’ll grant, but many of the minds that are defining the curve belong to members of the Academy, and our rules reflect that.”

> Who? Look at this year’s 134 additions to the Academy – can you name a single person on the list that would be described as defining of the curve of digital innovation? No, you cannot.

“Your letter assumes that we haven’t made films delivered via the internet eligible because we haven’t caught up to the technology.  Consider though that a disappointed Playhouse 90 producer could have made essentially the same point about television in the very early 1950’s.”

> Well a) you seriously want to cite precedent from 60 years ago? Really? But let’s assume you’re right. Playhouse 90 films NEVER appeared in theaters. They were solely made for TV. And b) by that definition shouldn’t we cast a deeply suspicious eye on all of Sheila Nevin’s work through HBO.  Those are films that are clearly made for TV but they push them into theaters for a few weeks simply to qualify. That is something they can afford to do because they are underwritten by Time Warner and already have their TV distribution secure. These films, in fact, do not have to make ANY money back for investors. It’s a terrible, simple-minded comparison that is far from accurate. If the AMPAS’ argument is that they want to protect the notion of the THEATRICAL motion picture, then maintaining the requirement that those films be available in theaters more than amply suffices. Why then destroy audience’s chances to see those films if they are NOT in the core market.

“The point though is that we’re still not interested in chasing moving images into every kind of screen on which they may eventually be delivered.  A day may come when your bricks-and-mortar cinemas may disappear, and then we’ll need to decide whether to fold up our tent or look for a new specialty, but for now it’s enough of a job to sift through 40 or so theatrical releases a year…; we have no interest in becoming an academy that evaluates and honors the ever-tinier pictures delivered on each new generation of techno-gadgets.”

> Well at least Mr. Davis is honest. They are NOT going to look at the future until the future arrives. That seems like a smart course to take (with Sid Ganis leaving, I hear Rick Wagoner is looking for a job guys). Furthermore, as I just noted, these films are STILL GOING TO THEATERS TO QUALIFY! Mr. Davis seems to imply that adjusting this rule would open the flood-gates to every film on youtube but that is FAR from the truth. A finite number of films will ever go to theaters. Why punish the subset of those films that are not backed by Sid Ganis’ wife or Time Warner? If I had sold my brownstone for $5.6M I wouldn’t care about marketing costs either, Nancy!

“The 60-day no-TV, no-internet rule exists because many (most?) documentary filmmakers value the opportunity to establish a genuine theatrical run if the audience response warrants it. The rule protects them from distributors in other media who might prefer to hold theatrical distribution to a minimum and move to a television or other release as soon as possible.”

> And this is the most pathetic part. ‘We’re doing this for YOUR benefit’. Well fuck you Mr. Davis. Let smart filmmakers decide what is in their best interest. This is the IP equivalent of telling women in some cultures they had best cover up their faces, for their own benefit.

If one of these filmmakers came to you and asked for an exemption, would you offer it? Of course not. It’s because this policy has nothing to do with protecting filmmakers and everything to do with protecting MMPS and exhibitors’ narrow vision of how to thrive.

They’re wrong and so are you.  For shame.

A brief side-note is that currently Day & Date is being used by Gigantic, IFC and Magnolia, among others. This is not some crazy niche idea, this is the new reality.

I suggest reading the initial letter and then both the response and Mark Lipsky’s retort (all at Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily).


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  1. […] Noah Harlan document.write(unescape('%68%61%73')); this thoughtful rant about document.write(unescape('%74%68%65')); Academy’s Rule 12, […]

  2. […] with the blurring definition of theatrical in the digital age. I would want to know why they insist on hurting independent documentary filmmakers with archaic rules. I would want to know what the Academy will do about the problematic rules […]

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