Studio-affiliated members of the independent film community claimtheir chances of success in the upcoming awards season could lie in ruins nowthat the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) proposal to abolishpreview screening tapes looks likely to be pushed through this week.

The specialized divisions of the studios - Fine Line Features,Focus Features, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Miramax Films, Paramount Classics,Sony Pictures Classics, United Artists and Warner Independent Pictures - willall be forbidden to send out screeners under the new system now that theirstudio parents have agreed to a proposal by MPAA head Jack Valenti.

It is understood an announcement may come as early as today (Sept30) after a Los Angeles press report last week said all the major studio heads had been intalks with representative body the MPAA.

An MPAA spokesperson insisted there was no change in policy as ofyesterday and declined to comment further, while nobody at any of the studioswas prepared to comment, but the panic in the independent community waspalpable.

The so-called indies have already suffered a blow with theshortening of the Oscar season by a month, offering fewer chances to theirsmaller films to benefit from nominations exposure.

If the screener dictate is made studio policy, as is nowinevitable, the Oscars would essentially be returned to the domain of bigbudget studio pictures which could pay for exposure at the expense of theindependents. Ironically the rules would of course not apply to the genuinelyindependent independents - Lions Gate, Artisan, IFC Films and Samuel GoldwynFilms among others - who can continue to send out screeners if they so choose.

While the MPAA move is purportedly driven by a desire on the partof the studios to prevent 'screeners' from being copied illegally anddisbursed, many were shaking their heads yesterday and saying that the revenuesderived from Oscar campaigns would be wiped out and that the studios weretrampling on smaller pictures.

According to a range of people who agreed to speak to Screendailyon condition of anonymity, the move would rob non-studio films, film-makers andstars of the necessary exposure required to drum up support among Academy Awardvoters and their corresponding members in other awards bodies.

Many of their thoughts and concerns were echoed by Dawn Hudson,the executive director of IFP/Los Angeles, who agreed to go on the record.

"This would be really harmful to the independent film community.In many ways the independent film nominations over the last few years havegiven the Academy the legitimacy of having quality film," Hudson said.

"To rule against screeners means those Academy members may now notsee a significant portion of this year's awards contenders.

"If screeners hadn't been sent out in recent years I don't thinkHalle Berry [Monster's Ball] and Pedro Almodovar [Talk To Her], for instance, would have beennominated."

Without any official comment, the air has been buzzing withspeculation. Many were asking how the specialty divisions could just stand byand watch as Lions Gate, Artisan et al send out screeners to Academy members whilethey could not. And what would the penalties be if they did'

Similarly, while it makes sense to stop piracy of big-budgettitles like the Matrixpictures or the Lord Of The Rings trilogy from screener distribution, is piracy really an issue forintense dramas like 21 Grams or foreign language titles held by studio companies like Valentin,Les Invasions Barbaresand I'm Not Scared(owned by Miramax) or The Triplets Of Belleville, Bon Voyage and Goodbye, Lenin! (by Sony Classics)' These are the filmswhich will clearly suffer, as awards voters will be driven to screenings of bigstudio pictures.

Smaller distributors argue that with a plethora of films in themix during awards season, tapes are important ways for voting members to catchup on a film they may have missed during its qualifying run.

By contrast the major studio's contenders generally go on widerelease for a lengthy time, offering plenty of opportunity to be seen byvoters.

However, as publicists in Los Angeles rushed to book more screeningrooms to cope with the possible increased demand from voting members, there wasanger and concern.

"With the way the studios are controlling things it's like we'vegone back to the late Seventies," one said.

"This could have deeper ramifications than Academy voters notgetting their tapes," another added.

"We need to send out tapes to critics before interviews, agentsand managers will be upset because their clients may not get seen in one of theyear's stronger films and so it goes on."

Meanwhile the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - thebody whose members vote on the Oscars - issued a statement yesterday stressingit was not involved in the decision

"The Academy has absolutely nothing to do with studio screeners,"it read. "We do not provide our membership lists to the studios, we do not mailout the tapes on DVDs, we do not facilitate their distribution in any way.

"We have alwaysurged our members to see the films on the big screen the way they were intendedto be seen and to base their judgments of the achievements contained in thefilms on those viewings and not to vote based upon an image seen on the televisionscreen."