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Crime Of The Screeners

     Sopranos profiling? The Italian-American wise-guy roles he acted in his sleep might have tipped off the feds to Carmine Caridi. He's been Mafia top dog Sam Giancano in Ruby (1991) and mobster Frank Costello in Bugsy (1991), and he played different-but-similar gangsters, Carmine Rosata and Albert Volpe, in The Godfather, Part II (1974) and The Godfather, Part III (1990). Are crooks and cops from the same mold? He appeared fifteen times as Detective Vince Gatelli on NYPD Blue.

     You might have heard the go-straight-to-jail news: Caridi, now 70, is the first member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to be caught redhanded tranferring to others the VHS screeners he was given to watch before casting his Academy Awards ballots.

     In 2004, for the first time ever, each Academy member was made to sign a pledge "not to allow the screeners to circulate outside my residence or office" and "not to allow them to be reproduced in any fashion, and not to sell them or to give them away at any time." Caridi agreed to the pledge, but then (this he's admitted) he did what he's done the last three years: send from LA a box of 60 screeners to one Russell William Sprague of Homewood, Illinois. Caridi's story: the screeners were shipped without, for him, any financial compensation. He offered them for Sprague's private enjoyment, because the Illini man is such a film buff.

     Hmmmm. OK. And that's sort of Sprague's tale, though the FBI came to his house and found duplicating machines converting VHS tapes to DVDs. Sprague confessed he made six copies of each film, but only, he said, for friends and family; and no money passed hands.

     There's a different version of affairs from the other side. Warner Brothers VP and intellectual property counsel, David Kaplan, asked the FBI to investigate when it was heard that prime 2003 Hollywood features were available for sale on the Internet. Among these were seven Oscar-nominated films including Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World and Mystic River. When the FBI got hold of some of these cassettes, they were traced, via a digital watermark encoding, to those earlier received by Caridi.

     It was Caridi who was first questioned about peddling these new movies on the Internet, a federal crime which, from each count, could bring 3-5 year jail sentences and $500,000 fines. It was a frightened Caridi who finked and fingerpointed, and who sent the FBI scurrying to Illinois to check out Sprague.

     Sprague has a March 30 trial date versus the U.S. Attorney General's Office, as he's accused of "conspiracy and copyright infringement." Caridi is being sued in federal court by both Warner Bros. Entertainment and Columbia Pictures. On February 3rd, Caridi, a 22-year member, was expelled from AMPAS. Caridi's admittance of giving away screeners, even if without a profit motive, was sufficient grounds for expulsion. Never again can he vote for the Oscars.

     And what about we film critics, who, like AMPAS members, also have a pile of screeners on hand? Will I be arrested if, for example, I show one of these to my mother? And do I dare throw out screener cassettes that I don't want? What if they are plucked out of my garbage can and ease their way onto E-Bay? Will I go to Alcatraz? To Guantanamo Bay?

     David McNary, a Variety reporter, noted in a recent column that the Academy agreement "offered no specifics on how to get rid of screeners," so he queried John Pavlik, an AMPAS spokesman. Here's Pavlik's advice: "We're telling members to cut up the discs and pull out the tape from the cassettes if they want to throw them out."

     Well, why not give it a try? I'm pausing my typing now, to rip the cellophane off the box of an extra cassette I possess of the 2003 teen film, Blue Car, because Miramax Films inadvertently shipped me two copies. "Do not touch the tape inside," is a direction on the tape, but I'm ignoring it, because I have a higher duty to AMPAS. I'm now smashing the plastic, I'm pulling out the tape. I'm ripping the tape! Blue Car is an unwatchable mess, but, whew, I'm not being hauled to federal court."

GERALD PEARY
(Boston Phoenix, March, 2004)

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