Campus movie screenings in limbo

A major change in campus life may be approaching: the end of public student organization-sponsored film screenings on campus. Under fire from a licensing company for allegedly illegal public showings of many movies, the future of screenings by organizations such as SWIL, Anime Club, and Films of Fury is unclear.

The story begins back in September, when Student Activities Coordinator Jenny Yim rented “The Incredibles” from Swank Motion Pictures, Inc. of St. Louis, to screen on Parrish Beach during Welcome Weekend. Swank is the dominant licensor and distributor of public films to college campuses, and Movie Committee has rented prints from Swank in the past. SWIL, the Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature, has also rented some obscure films from Swank for their weekly SWIL Movie. However, most SWIL Movie prints or DVDs come from McCabe or from private collections, according to SWIL president Jackie Werner ’07.

Soon after the Welcome Weekend rental Swank asked Yim about Movie Committee’s plans for the semester, after they were unable to contact Jeremy Cristol ’05, the former head of Movie Committee (who, of course, had graduated). Yim replied that she did not know who was now in charge of Movie Committee or what they were planning, and that they had not shown any movies on campus so far that semester (the screenings began in late September).

Swank seems to have become very suspicious that Movie Committee was showing films illegally on campus, which was not the case. A Swank worker began to scan the Space booking system, which is available to anyone over the internet, and found several unlicensed public screenings by other student organizations of films which they licensed. According to Swank’s definitions and interpretations of the law, such public showings without a license are illegal. Swank defines any location outside a personal dorm room as “public.”

In November, Swank contacted the MPAA, the Motion Picture Association of America, an organization somewhat famous for zealous crackdowns on copyright issues, and told them that Swarthmore organizations were illegally screening movies. A representative from the MPAA contacted Yim and, she said “educated” her on the law, but “did not threaten a suit.” Yim then talked to SBC, the Student Budgetary Committee, about the issue. SBC has since frozen SWIL’s movie budget.

The student body was not informed until this semester. “We were still grappling with how this impacted students,” Yim said, and said that the entire issue mushroomed around Reading Week in December.

SWIL in particular has been very outspoken about the issue. “A lot of SWIL’s campus presence is based on these movies,” said Werner, who said that they draw from 5 to 10 people to occasionally significantly more. Since the events are listed on the Space reservation website and advertised on campus, they are public showings regardless of the audience size. The Student Activities Office has “dump[ed] this on the laps of student groups without giving us any advice on how to deal with it,” Werner said on Tuesday night.

So-called umbrella licenses have been proposed, but Yim says that no such license exists. The video viewing license in McCabe has also been discussed, but it apparently does not apply to public showings either. SWIL’s budget will not support individual licenses for a weekly movie.

Representatives from Free Culture, SWIL, and other student organizations met with Dean of Student Life Myrt Westphal and Yim yesterday, and are working towards a solution to hold their movies as private events. It is unclear exactly where this would occur, but “we want to find a way to continue to show these movies,” Yim said, albeit in a legal fashion


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