It'sopen season for awards screener tapes in 2004. It emerged late last week thatthe MPAA has decided to leave screener policy up to individual distributorsfrom now on and will not enforce its members to limit mailouts of tapes orDVDs.

Thenew policy was made known to in a letter MPAA president and CEOJack Valenti sent out to a slew of awards bodies last week calling an openroundtable meeting for April 12 in Beverly Hills. "MPAA will not be settingscreener policy," the letter stated. "That will be up to the individualdecision of individual distribution companies."

Thedecision effectively means that, unless a studio maintains a virulentanti-screener policy to the detriment of its films' awards chances, all distributors will oncemore be free to send out copies of their films to all awards voters.

Asto what measures to take to prevent piracy of the screeners, Valenti plans tokick off the discussion at the April 12 meeting with two representativesinvited from each of a host of awards bodies including the Academy, guilds and pressand critics groups.

Themove by the MPAA to resign responsibility for the screeners to its studiomembers signifies an admission that it had misjudged the screener issue whichcreated a maelstrom of strong feelings in Hollywood and abroad last year andwhich culminated in early Dec with the MPAA losing a lawsuit brought against itby a group of independent producers claiming restraint of trade. Anti-trustlawyers will be on hand at the April 12 meeting to monitor proceedings.

Most studios sent out copies of their films to all awards bodiesafter the lawsuit, and not just the Academy which had struck an exclusive dealwith MPAA companies to receive screeners prior to the lawsuit.

Some 4,700 of the 5,800 members of the Academy signed agreementsstating they are responsible for the tapes sent to them and they would beexpelled from the Academy if their tapes were discovered being used for piracypurposes.Two Academy members - Hanna Hertelendy and Carmine Caridi - wereindeed implicated in illegal piracy of screener tapes earlier this year.

However, the Academy deal was essentially rendered moot by theloss of the lawsuit, leaving studios free to send screeners to the 1,100members of the Academy who hadn't signed the agreement as well as criticsgroups, press bodies and guilds which also handed out awards.

Warner Bros and Disney were at first reluctant to send their filmsto other awards bodies and did indeed remain selective in which bodies theysent to; it isyet to be decided whether they will hold back their films thisyear.

Meanwhile, themeeting will look at specific measures to protect films from piracy such as thewatermarking system adopted by the Academy on VHS cassettes.