And the Oscar for biggest controversy goes to...

They're calling it screenergate - and while it may seem less exciting than a "Matrix" movie to average filmgoers, it has reviewers in their biggest tizzy since "Driving Miss Daisy" took home Best Picture.

The issue is "screeners," movies mailed to year-end award voters, who may not have seen all the films in theaters. Mailed until this year, that is. Several weeks ago Hollywood suddenly and drastically changed its policy. Citing piracy of the review copies, the Motion Picture Association of America announced that, although it would allow studios to send movies to Academy Award voters, it would not send the DVD and video-cassette screeners to movie critics across the country.

Less important than the price of popcorn, you say? You're clearly not a critic.

Many film reviewers have argued that the screeners allow them to catch smaller movies they may have missed. The result is that the screeners often have a bearing on critics' awards at the end of each year. And those, in turn, affect which movies have buzz leading up to the Academy Awards. For smaller, indie movies with smaller marketing budgets, critical acclaim between now and Oscar time can make the difference between the red and black ink on the bottom line.

Movie critics are flooding colleagues' computers with e-mails carrying subject lines like "United we stand" and "On strikes and self-immolation," not to mention "Shame!" Some critics' associations have canceled their year-end awards in protest.

"I promise not to give up until they pry the last screener from my cold dead hands," wrote a California reviewer in an e-debate.

I know these people, and I assure you they're nice, civilized folks. But we critics can sting when we feel wronged, and passions are running high.

As a veteran reviewer put it, "These [studio executives] are movie people. American movie people.

They think only in terms of power."

We critics, by contrast, are objective and high-minded. At least, we like to think we are. But let's face it, we like to think we have a little power too - at least enough to ensure we can see as many of the year's films as possible so we can bestow thoughtful end-of-year awards.

"Like it or not," says Peter Rainer, the New York Magazine reviewer who chairs the National Society of Film Critics, "without screeners, critics - especially those who operate outside the L.A.-N.Y. axis - do not always have access to all the films they need to see to vote their best choices responsibly."

Peter Brunette, a Washington, D.C., film professor and freelance critic, agrees, and adds an additional point. "It's precisely the smallest films - the ones that most need the push an award can give them - that are hardest to see without recourse to screeners."

So what happened to a system that seemed to work for everyone involved?

The brouhaha began with a Sept. 30 announcement by Jack Valenti, longtime chief of the Motion Picture Association of America, that studios and distributors belonging to the MPAA would no longer make screeners available. This would put a big dent, Mr. Valenti said, in the film piracy that takes money from Hollywood's pocket.

The first outcry came from Oscar voters, who feel their membership in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences ought to carry a few perks. Even their special "Academy screenings," aren't as convenient as viewing in your living room, thumb poised over the fast-forward button.

The second outcry came from critics, who often rely on year-end screeners to catch up with movies they've missed. Awards bestowed by our professional groups are seen as early clues to the coming Oscar race, and perhaps an influence on Oscar voting.

Screeners tied to award races are a fairly recent development, starting about a dozen years ago. Those of us who've been critics in the field a long time - it's been about 35 years for me - remember when we did our jobs without extra help from the studios or anyone else. Many younger reviewers have used screeners since their careers began, though, and can scarcely imagine doing without.

In any case, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association promptly protested the screener ban by canceling its awards for 2003. Chicago's critics joined the ban last week, and other groups said they'd consider the same action.

Concerned about all this outrage, the MPAA reached a "compromise," allowing 2003 screeners for Academy members - i.e., Oscar voters - but nobody else. Academy members smiled, but my colleagues scowled, taking this as a professional - even personal - slur.

"The whole thing has been so clumsily and arrogantly handled by Jack Valenti," says Dr. Brunette, "that many members of the [National Society of Film Critics] have felt, rightly, insulted."

It's true that piracy costs Hollywood an estimated $3 billion each year. Yet it's common knowledge that piracy takes place mainly in film-processing labs and in theaters where scavengers tape movies off the screen.

Valenti appeared to be implying that critics' screeners - but not those sent to Oscar voters - have been gushing into the duplicating machines of criminals. I mean, what are we - responsible reviewers or pirates of the Caribbean?

Makers of independent movies, produced outside Hollywood's purview, have also decried the ban - fearing their films will suffer more than big-studio productions, since critics often miss "little pictures" in theaters.

"Despite talk of a truce," Variety reported, "the indie community remains poised for further assault.... One source said up to 10 antitrust lawsuits could be filed against the studios and the MPAA."

Even overseas groups have leaped into the fray. The ban is "discriminatory" and potentially "catastrophic," opines the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Eliminating screeners is "a blow to cultural diversity," said the Brussels-based European Film Companies Alliance, and provides "evidence of arrogance" by Valenti and company.

I've served two terms as chair of the New York Film Critics Circle, and I also belong to four other critics' organizations. So where do I stand on screenergate? Like many of my colleagues, I keep changing my mind. My first response was that canceling the 2003 awards - as the L.A. critics did in October and the Chicago Film Critics Association did last week - amounts to letting Hollywood veto one of our most important contributions.

It's an open secret that critics organizations do little besides bestowing their yearly awards, so a boycott is tantamount to putting ourselves out of business as a collective enterprise. And no, the voting isn't much fun. Friends ask about the fascinating table talk that must go on, but mostly we sit around a table and cast ballot after ballot after ballot, hoping that something (anything!) will win so we can move to the next category and finish before nightfall.

And yet I can't help feeling that Valenti and the MPAA are accusing my professional peers - and thus accusing me - of giving aid and comfort to profiteering pirates who drain Hollywood of legitimate profits.

And why in the world would we do that? In addition to being illegal, the profit loss from piracy gives the major studios yet another excuse for churning out formula movies, instead of taking more artistic chances. So it's the last thing any critic Would want to encourage, for both moral and aesthetic reasons. A widespread protest might have just enough impact on the MPAA to show how insulted we feel, and encourage it to reverse its position.

It's a longtime practice of mine to see as many "little pictures" as I can, but I work in New York, where that's easier than in other parts of the country. If a ban made movies like "My Architect" more obscure than they already are - despite rave reviews - then critics' groups will lose what I feel is their most important reason for existing.

It's anybody's guess how screenergate will play out, and the endgame might not come until next month - with awards balloting and 10-best lists around the corner. Here's hoping Hollywood - and we critics - can come up with a happy ending.

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