Had I attended the screening, I might very well have become a direct participant in a simmering controversy regarding the movie: well-intentioned but illegal screenings of Ushpizin in shuls and other places. Capitalizing on the growing appeal of this breakthrough film, the screenings violate copyright law and the property rights of the U.S. distributor of the film, Picturehouse, a joint venture of HBO and New Line Cinema (both units of Time Warner).
I learned of the problem of illegal screenings through a full-page ad for the film in the Dec. 23 issue of the Jewish Week in New York. The ad announced Picturehouse-sanctioned screenings at the Yeshiva of Flatbush on Jan. 1 and Jan. 2. The ad caught my attention with a statement under the headline, "An important note from the filmmaker and distributor of Ushpizin." It read:
The Creators of the Award winning movie Ushpizin call for your assistance. Please support the filmmakers and enjoy Ushpizin in movie theaters, and avoid illegal screenings. The movie is still in theaters in the USA and any DVDs of Ushpizin are unauthorized. Piracy is against both civil and Jewish law. For more information about the US release of Uspizin, please visit www.ushpizin.com.
To make the point even clearer, the bottom of the ad says, "Leading Torah authorities have ruled that unauthorized use of the Ushpizin is contrary to Halacha (Jewish law)." Surely this is the first time such a notice has appeared on a Time Warner film. Neither the ad nor the Ushpizin website provide specifics about the authorities and their rulings.
Messages boards at the official website, however, sizzle with discussion of the ethics of such showings. One post asserts, noting the "arbitrage" of copies of the product from one market (Israel) to another (the US), that "distributors are going to have to adjust their own model to accommodate the current reality of the global marketplace." Another, more specific post frantically requests guidance from Picturehouse:
A Jewish organization is planning to show Ushpizin in a room in a hotel at the end of a weekend retreat. The DVD was purchased legally from Israel. There is no charge for tickets and THERE WASN'T EVEN ANY ADVERTISING THAT THE FILM WOULD BE SHOWN. A lawyer has told us that we are within our rights to show the film, but we would like to confirm that it is alright with you.
The debate spilled over to other websites, moving beyond questions about the movie to comments on ethical practices among the haredim. Cross-Currents had several comments, including a well-informed statement from Jessica Rosner of Kino International. Dozens of learned and acrimonious comments can be found in the discuss at Mentalblog.com.
The debate is healthy, in that it provides a teachable moment, if you will, about property rights and ethics. Let's hope the Jewish community hears the pleas of Picturehouse and respects the distributor's intellectual property. It would be a shame if illegal showings siphon off money that could otherwise go to encourage similar Jewish film productions. THAT would be shanda.
Ironically, the week after I almost stumbled on to the dubious synagogue showing, I met a friend to see Ushpizin at a theater on Broadway in New York. My friend arrived a bit late, so we switched to another feature, about a well-known Jewish writer, you know, the author named Capote.
Oh, you mean Truman Capote wasn't Jewish? Boy, have I been misinformed!