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By Their Command


With the two-hour series finale of the epic, bar-raising reboot of Battlestar Galactica airing this Friday, what could be better than checking it out in high definition on the silver screen, surrounded by a dedicated audience of T.O.’s geek elite? Or better yet, doing so while contributing a little something to a good cause, fully secure in your anything-but-Cylon humanity?
Until yesterday, you had that option. Those with an ear to the city’s sci-fi rumblings (or a Facebook account) probably knew about the Fox Theatre’s March 20 presentation of the BSG finale. For seven dollars, you got a ticket to a showing that roundly shamed your friend’s gigantic 42 inch widescreen, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Daily Bread Food Bank. Of course, Torontoist would have been only too tickled to let you know about the screening earlier, except for one thing: within days of the press release landing in our inbox, NBC Universal, Battlestar Galactica‘s heavy-handed steward, promptly changed its mind.


The event suffered a few false starts. After a failed pitch to SPACE, organizers aimed higher and went straight to the head of TV Operations and Sales at NBC Universal. “[She] said that it’d be the same as a bar running it,” explains Andy Willick, co-owner of the Fox. “She said something to the effect of ‘we couldn’t stop you if we wanted to; I don’t know about it.’ They basically agreed to turn their heads and ignore it.” With a green light, ticket sales took off. “The event definitely would have sold out,” Willick says. “It would have been our first since taking over in September 2007.”
Throughout the first three seasons of Battlestar Galactica, the idea of a superior force getting the jump on a haggard, rag-tag fleet half its size was a story-driving plot point—especially when that superior force shows up at the last possible second. What happened next reads like some experiment in real world parallels that ended up on Ronald Moore‘s cutting room floor.
“We were contacted by the same woman who approved it,” Willick continues. “She said that she had made a mistake, that she should have said no right off the bat, and [we] were told to ‘put a bullet in it.’” Willick took the issue to the official’s boss, the Senior Executive for TV at NBC Universal. When told again to axe the screening, Willick countered that there were many such screenings happening across North America, some of which had been a regular occurrence for the entire fourth season of the series. In response, NBC suggested submitting a proposal to be vetted by the network’s legal department in Los Angeles. “We decided to donate the total door proceeds in the hopes that this would satiate them,” says Willick. “On the phone they said something like, ‘this isn’t about being nice.’”
And indeed it wasn’t. Driving a final nail through the event’s casket, NBC’s mighty legal department advised the following: “While NBC Universal is supportive of your efforts to help a worthy cause, we regret to inform you that we will not authorize the public exhibition of the Battlestar Galactica finale as described below. Please be advised that any public exhibition of the show in this manner would be in violation of applicable copyright law.”

tickets_bsg_03172009.jpg
Photo of tickets to this Friday’s screening party courtesy of Nicole Winchester.


Yet even with such an officious pronouncement, Willick remained committed to a viable work-around—but to no avail. “I called a copyright lawyer,” he says. “According to him, there was no way to make the event legal—i.e., calling it a ‘private event,’ etc.—and any public screening in a commercial space is illegal.” After navigating NBC’s legal morass, said lawyer advised that “if we didn’t cancel it, they would pursue legal action and would do so with anyone violating the copyright law.”
While the whole thing seems like an open-and-shut case of copyright law gone insane, the issue remains that a disorganized spokesperson for NBC had given the Fox Theatre a tacit green light, setting in motion an inexorable chain of events.
Nicole Winchester, the organizer who had done the lion’s share of the event’s legwork, was considerably less than reserved in her disappointment. “As the person who put a lot of hard work and effort into the screening,” she writes, “I am pretty much devastated. I wish something could have been worked out.”
At press time, NBC Universal was unavailable for comment.
“We have received no offer of financial compensation, despite the fact that this was their mistake,” Willick continues. “If we had received a ‘no’ to start, we would have simply played an Oscar film, which would have grossed pretty well. Instead, we will have a bunch of disappointed BSG fans, no money for Daily Bread Food Bank, and an empty screening of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
If you were among the loyal BSG fans who had purchased tickets to the stricken screening, refunds will be available at the point of sale starting this Friday, March 20.

CORRECTION: MARCH 19, 2009
This article originally quoted Fox co-owner Andy Willick, who told Torontoist, “I’ve since been informed that SPACE has also been advertising the screening….Ironic.” Willick was apparently mistaken: SPACE confirmed with Torontoist this afternoon that the Fox’s screening was not advertised, promoted, or otherwise mentioned in any way on the channel.

Comments

  • http://null Ken Hunt

    The Fox should just go ahead with the screening, put the money from it in trust for the food bank until NBC makes their next move. Let NBC/Universal eat the bad press if they shut it down by force, or sue after the fact to take food out of the mouths of the poor.
    Why, oh why, do copyright holders insist on ticking off the people who love their properties the most? What does NBC gain from doing this? They should take their legal team out to the woodshed and teach them to smarten up.
    For future reference: it’s always easier to get forgiveness than permission.

  • http://null noizangel

    For future reference: it’s always easier to get forgiveness than permission.
    Sadly, that might have been the best option. I would like to say that the Fox Theatre (Andy in particular, who I spoke to pretty frequently over the last few weeks) were nothing less than outstanding in putting together the event and supporting it. They were eager to be involved and they should not be suffering for it.
    If you’re not watching BSG this Friday, I would strongly suggest checking out the Fox’s other offerings. Sci-fi fans – these are the guys who we should support!

  • http://null Gloria

    DAMN. How did I NOT know about this? This cancellation really sucks, but I guess I can go and attend that free screening of Children of Men with a clear heart.

  • http://null ked

    “While the whole thing seems like an open-and-shut case of copyright law gone insane”
    It doesn’t really though, does it? The whole thing just seems like copyright law. Unfortunate but not insane.

  • http://undefined Svend

    Every week in Austin you can go to the Alamo Drafthouse movie theatre to watch “Lost” for free, it’s extremely popular with long lineups. This is the way to watch TV, in a crowd with other fans.
    They make loads of money serving food and beer at your seat.
    The Fox used to show the Oscars for free, I hope they do this again.

  • http://null noizangel

    According to NBCU, any public screening is in violation of copyright. Even a free one.
    The Alamo Drafthouse is also showing BSG, free with $5 food voucher.
    I think the rules are just different for Canada. Not like Hulu videos work up here or anything. :P

  • http://www.publicspace.ca Jonathan Goldsbie
  • http://null joeclark

    Unfortunately, I don’t see how any educated person could have failed to see that a public performance of a copyrighted work requires permission.
    Next time, don’t draw attention to yourselves. Only the copyright holder can launch an action for infringement (of this type), and had it just gone ahead, they never would have known. Or, with zero press coverage, cared.

  • http://null Ken Hunt

    If anything, Swiss Family Guy Robinson and MacHomer perfectly illustrate the “easier to get forgiveness” rule.
    I’m certain that neither of these shows would have existed if they had seeked permission from Fox before their first performance. They didn’t do that, and that’s why MacHomer was successful. It was given consent only after Groening saw it with an audience who loved it.
    Fround still got the benefit of doing his show for as long as he did, plus the publicity, like that Star article, from Fox shutting him down. None of that would have happened if he had gone to Fox with his idea first.

  • http://undefined johhnyroyale

    Tell someone at NBC Universal that.

  • http://null joeclark

    Johnny Royale, since you’re unclear on the concept, let me explain it again: The first rule of Battlestar Galactica on the big screen is you do not talk about Battlestar Galactica on the big screen to somebody who can get you in shit over it.

  • http://www.torontoist.com David Topping

    I just appended a correction above, as Willick’s assertion that SPACE advertised the event in any way (which we originally printed in this article) was a mistake.

  • http://null noizangel

    The only way to rent a theatre in Toronto is with money – which I don’t have a ton of at the moment – or by doing a fundraiser. I first attempted to get sponsorship, which started the discussions with people from NBCU. Either way, I think it’s fair to assume that the similar screenings across Canada and the US had actually arranged something with NBCU, rather than figure that everyone was flouting copyright and brazenly advertising.
    The fact that the person that initially gave the okay didn’t think there would be an issue seems to illustrate that not everyone is well versed in copyright law. At least, not as well versed as you. I guess we’re just all uneducated.

  • http://null noizangel

    The only way to rent a theatre in Toronto is with money – which I don’t have a ton of at the moment – or by doing a fundraiser. I first attempted to get sponsorship, which started the discussions with people from NBCU. Either way, I think it’s fair to assume that the similar screenings across Canada and the US had actually arranged something with NBCU, rather than figure that everyone was flouting copyright and brazenly advertising.
    The fact that the person that initially gave the okay didn’t think there would be an issue seems to illustrate that not everyone is well versed in copyright law. At least, not as well versed as you. I guess we’re just all uneducated.

  • http://null noizangel

    The thing is, there were screenings with press coverage, with actors and writers appearing. Some were free, some had some sort of admission, and were across the US and Canada. Many had been happening for the whole season. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume there was an arrangement. Obviously, you disagree, but I still wanted to be clear – one shut down, others that were much more visible and longterm were not.

  • http://null PressPLay

    Just heard the bad news about the FOX today and I’m really pissed. Good thing I had a backup plan and I’m going to the SPACE CHANNEL viewing tonight. :)
    Anyway, I remember attending several years ago Oscar parties shown at the FOX. Aren’t the copyright laws the exact same thing? I’ve attended at least 2 Oscar parties which were show at the FOX movie theatre.