Sony's Stringer Takes a Stand

Stringer Takes a Stand | Actress in Trouble

Sony Chief Stringer Takes Stand in Oscar Battle

You're reading about this tempest in a teapot concerning the Oscars and a new rule forbidding studios to send tapes or DVDs of films to the voters.

You're wondering: What's up with this? Who cares?

The big studios say it's to stop piracy. But you know better. And so do I.

When the edict came down from Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, it was swift and unexpected. In fact, Sir Howard Stringer, the head of Sony Entertainment in America, tells me that he was the last studio head the MPAA called.

He was furious about it when I ran into him at Lincoln Center on Friday night for the opening of the New York Film Festival. To underscore his position, Stringer was with his Sony Pictures Classics chief Michael Barker. SPC's Oscar chances could be damaged by the decision to ban "screeners."

"I am totally against the end of screeners," Stringer said. And he has good reason: He oversees Sony Pictures Classics, which has given us Oscar-bountiful independent movies by Pedro Almodóvar and Ang Lee as well as "Winged Migration."

These films would not have made it to the final cut if not for older Academy members being able to watch them at home.

"And I am pretty upset about the way this was done," Stringer added.

The seven major studios very quietly signed an agreement not to send out screeners this year, closing out everyone who they thought wanted to be part of the Oscars from the process. Stringer says Sony/Columbia had signed the letter before he knew what had happened.

Stringer is a rarity among the studio chiefs. He operates out of New York. He is not wedded to the Beverly Hills/Bel Air/Malibu way of life. His is not part of the permanent government in the American entertainment business.

But the other studio chiefs are. Just like their Emmy Award counterparts, the ones who fight against having HBO shows like "The Sopranos" steal the thunder from broadcast shows like "The West Wing," the West Coast movie business has had it with the East Coast making them look like fools every year at Oscar time.

You may have wondered why the Academy refuses to let even part of the Oscars be telecast from New York. Duh!

Everything about the DVD-screener debate can be summed up by looking at two years in Oscar history: 1986 and 1996. It's called a generational shift, and this is what happened.

First, 1986. Look at the best-picture nominees. Does anyone remember a Roland Joffé film called "The Mission" starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons?

A Warner Bros. release, "The Mission" got mostly terrible reviews. It cost a fortune to make, but it employed lots of Hollywood cast and crew. It was considered a prestige picture. It got a bunch of Oscar nominations.

It served a purpose as so many Hollywood epics had in prior years. It was like a piece of veal cordon bleu served with a cream sauce in a fancy French-like American restaurant. It was stuffed with cheese, so it was supposed to be good.

"The Mission" has since sunk to the bottom of the ocean of cinematic history like a stone.

Flash forward to 1996: The cheese is gone. To coin a phrase from a recent bestselling book, it's been moved.

In 1996, the Oscar-nominee list came from a bunch of indies, all from New York or places other than Hollywood. The days of "The Mission" were over.

"Fargo," "Shine," "The English Patient" and "Secrets and Lies" all came from the black lagoon of non-Hollywood. Only Columbia's "Jerry Maguire," starring Hollywood's No. 1 attraction, Tom Cruise, made the list. And it lost.

The following year, 1997, "Good Will Hunting," "The Full Monty" and "L.A. Confidential" (a Warners studio picture that was treated like an evil stepchild) almost toppled the ultimate big-studio picture, "Titanic."

In 1998, "Shakespeare in Love," "Life Is Beautiful," "Elizabeth" and "The Thin Red Line" (another studio film held at arm's length) trumped the West Coast sensibilities represented by "Saving Private Ryan."

The Hollywood establishment has been slowly losing ground for many years. Starting in 1989 with "My Left Foot," Miramax, i.e., indie films from New York, made alarming inroads at the Oscars.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker actually won. Daniel Day-who? Brenda what? They weren't glamorous or well known. They were the kind of people who used to maybe get a supporting nomination. It was only the beginning.

By 1993, Anna Paquin — an 11-year-old from New Zealand — won best supporting actress in "The Piano." She accepted her award wearing what looked like a Dust Buster on her head.

This was probably the point at which Valenti knew there was a problem. The studio gate had been picked open.

Maybe it's not a conspiracy, but if people from another part of the country imperiled my livelihood, I'd do everything I could to stop them. Wouldn't you?

It's not just Miramax that threatens the Warner-Paramount-Universal-Columbia-Disney-20th way of life. Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Universal's Focus, Fine Line and a host of smaller firms (Lions Gate, ThinkFilms, Newmarket, Artisan, Strand, Cowboy, Magnolia) now churn out the films smart people want to see. The big guys have been relegated to manufacturing derided cinematic theme parks masquerading as films.

Valenti might have had a good point about piracy had he not followed his declaration with news that studios can't even distribute existing DVDs or tapes that are already in stores. Huh?

Right there he seemed to negate his whole anti-piracy platform. If a tape/disc is available in a retail store, how can sending it to someone for free make it vulnerable to massive fraudulent copying?

The answer is, it can't. Frankly, the whole piracy debate smells like a stalking horse anyway. Movies are still not downloadable the way music is. Valenti is acting as if there are huge lines to buy the kind of in-theatre videos Kramer wanted to make on "Seinfeld," with people's heads bobbing up in the picture, or with grainy, milky images.

So the move is on to cut off the independents and restore Hollywood power to its proper places. Valenti says that screening rooms will be doubled to accommodate Oscar voters, but the truth is that won't happen.

Both Los Angeles and New York lack the number of private screens necessary for this. In automobile-dependent L.A., older voters don't get around much at night anyway. It's the screeners that make it possible for them to see smaller films.

Get ready, I suppose, for studio fare like "The Italian Job" and "Matchstick Men" to be in the running for best picture. How about The Rock for best actor? Just hold on. Look at today's election. Anything is possible.

Actress Warning: Trouble Ahead?

I don't do many "blind" items, but this seemed particularly acute.

A famous actress is in trouble. No matter what you've heard, she's partying too hard and making poor decisions. Popular, maybe to a fault, she's feeling a little lost due to circumstances that may have once been in her control.

Her rapidly changing public persona is a wrong move, but she may be too clouded to know this. She's only human, after all. But this is one time to choose style over substances.

Hopefully the people who really are close to her can pull in the reins before things get worse. Mama, you see, told her there'd be days like these, and she was right.