NEW YORK - In a victory for independent film producers, a federal judge Friday blocked an industry ban on sending advance copies of films to some movie awards voters.
Large movie studios had claimed the ban was critical to stop the explosion of movie piracy. But the smaller houses said it limited awards voters' exposure to their movies - hurting their chances for bigger box-office receipts.
U.S. District Judge Michael B. Mukasey sided with the independent producers, granting a temporary restraining order against the ban, which is enforced by the Motion Picture Association of America.
Mukasey said he was swayed by testimony that showed awards are critical to the success of smaller films, which do not have the hefty advertising budget of larger studios.
"Plaintiffs have shown they are at risk of loss of revenue as a result of the screener ban," the judge said.
Mukasey said the 14 independent movie studios who brought the case against the MPAA had shown sufficient evidence the ban violated federal antitrust law, which is designed to encourage competition.
Ted Hope, an independent producer, said the ruling was a victory for movie fans because it would allow smaller-budget pictures to get the acclaim they deserve, and therefore wider release. "I'm just thrilled," he said.
The Motion Picture Association "will appeal because the impact and growing threat of piracy is real and must be addressed wherever it appears," said a statement by its president, Jack Valenti.
Mukasey heard a full day of testimony in the case on Wednesday, including that of Valenti, who said the ban was justified and important.
"Piracy has become a malignant fungus on the face of our industry, and it's becoming more virulent as we go along," he said.
But the ban would also force voters for some movie awards to attend one-time-only screenings or see movies in theaters, rather than watching at home on their own time.
Smaller movie studios said that meant their films were less likely to be considered for awards.
The major movie studios that make up the Motion Picture Association of America agreed to the ban Sept. 30, and the MPAA said at the time it was a way to protect against rampant piracy.
The trade group said it was concerned that screener copies of movies were finding their way onto the streets for sale as bootleg, or readily available on the Internet in digital form.
Independent film producers spoke out against the ban almost immediately, arguing it would hurt their chances at winning smaller awards like Screen Actors Guild or Golden Globe awards.
The ban was modified Oct. 23 to allow the 5,600 voters for the Academy Awards, the industry's most important, to receive advance copies of movies up for awards in videotape form, which is more difficult to copy.
But independent producers said they were still harmed because the smaller awards, handed out in the fall and winter, are widely considered to affect which movies Oscar voters consider.
The 14 independent studios argued that the recent films, "Boys Don't Cry," "Gosford Park," "In the Bedroom" and "The Pianist," all lauded at the Oscars, were helped tremendously by receiving earlier, smaller awards.