Hollywood stars from Clint Eastwood to Sir Michael Caine have launched a rebellion against the major studios over a "film piracy crackdown" that they claim could stop small-budget movies ever winning another Oscar.
The Motion Picture Association of America - an umbrella group representing the seven biggest studios - has banned film-makers from sending advance copies of their movies on video or DVD to the judges who decide the nominations for the Academy Awards. It claims that millions of pirate copies on the international black market originate in the so-called "screeners" traditionally viewed in the run-up to the ceremony by the 5,600 members of the academy.
The director Robert Altman and Sarah Michelle Gellar, star of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, are among the 150-plus signatories of a petition calling for the ban to be overturned. They argue that tapes and DVDs provide a lifeline for independent film-makers who already face an uphill struggle to ensure members of the academy get to see their movies. Small-scale films, such as British arthouse hits Young Adam and The Magdalene Sisters, are distributed in only a handful of US cinemas, meaning that many academy members are unlikely to find a screen showing them in their area. In addition, smaller companies can ill-afford to stage the kind of lavish soirée that would be likely to persuade judges to travel long distances.
In an unprecedented show of unity, an alliance of the world's most celebrated actors and film-makers has taken out advertisements in the film press denouncing the "screener" ban. The full-page ads urge "everyone who is affected" to write to the studios concerned, which include Disney, MGM and Warner Brothers, the makers of the Harry Potter films, and call for the companies to "restore integrity to our business and the Academy Awards".
Supporters include Keanu Reeves, Glenn Close, Faye Dunaway, Robert Redford, Jamie Bell, the star of Billy Elliot, and Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre.
Among those who may lose out because of the ban on screening tapes and DVDs is two-time Oscar winner Sir Michael Caine, whose latest film, the low-budget thriller The Statement, is due to open in only four US cinemas. His publicist, Jerry Pam, told The Independent on Sunday: "He feels that it's very unfair for somebody in his position because there's no way you can get an award or even a nomination if the voting members of the academy don't get to see your film."
The Statement's director, Norman Jewison, whose credits include Fiddler on the Roof, In the Heat of the Night and Rollerball, criticised the timing of the ban, which comes weeks before the deadline for Oscar nominations.
He said: "If they had made this decision six months ago that would have been one thing, but to get our film out now in such a way that it can be seen by all the academy members before they are due to make their decisions is going to be impossible."
British actor James Purefoy, soon to be seen in a low-budget retelling of Vanity Fair, said many suspect the real reason for the ban is an attempt by the MPAA to stop independent films winning so many Oscars. If fear of piracy were the main motive, he said, tapes and DVDs could be encrypted to prevent them being copied. "I think people are increasingly realising that the knock-on effect of this will be that independents are going to struggle to ever again win another Oscar," he said. "It all smells a bit fishy."
No one at the MPAA was available for comment.