Piracy pressures may endanger Oscar DVDs

Pirates may be forcing screening tapes to walk the plank.

As with every decision affecting awards contenders, this one is stirring up a lot of emotions: Some in the film business are embracing the proposal, others are blasting it as an example of major-studio bullying, and many are expressing total panic.

The Motion Picture Assn. of America late Tuesday sent major-studio CEOs a draft of a proposal under which the studios would agree to send out no screening cassettes or DVDs during awards season. Org has been huddling with studio honchos in recent days on the subject (Daily Variety, Sept. 24).

One question is who would sign up for the plan. Certainly the document is targeted at the major studios and their arthouse divisions (i.e., not only Fox but Fox Searchlight, Disney as well as Miramax, etc.). And nonsignatory majors such as DreamWorks are also said to be onboard.

Another question is whether this effort will extend to the true indies, such as Lions Gate, Newmarket, Magnolia and ThinkFilm, which are not MPAA signatories.

But the biggest question is whether this cassette cease-fire will ever occur. Studio execs and awards strategists were split Wednesday on the outcome.

Some feel the proposal falls into the same category as “why don’t we all dump our nuclear weapons in the ocean?” — in other words, it’s a nice idea, but don’t hold your breath.

“We would all love (the mailing of screeners) to go away. It doesn’t serve the film, but you can’t reverse history,” one pessimist sighed.

Others are convinced the plan will definitely go into effect and a 15-year habit will be erased.

“It’s going to happen,” one marketing exec said, and the sentiment was echoed by several others.

Even at this early date, the awards season has seen some major changes (the Oscars’ shift in dates, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ get-tough attitude on campaigning). This latest plot twist was inspired by the piracy that has ballooned in recent years, particularly tied to studios’ DVD screeners.

The majors have weighed alternative plans, including disposable DVDs (which are unviewable after a limited amount of time) or “fingerprinted” copies (which include initials or a number on the screener, making the source easier to trace). But, for various reasons, those have been rejected.

The panic in town comes from procedural concerns. For example, studios would have to arrange for more frequent screenings; at this point, available screening rooms are hard to come by.

And last year, a lot of exhibitors balked at the long-standing practice of admitting members of guilds, the Academy and other organizations — the “your card will admit you and a guest” syndrome — into commercial runs. If there are no tapes or DVDs, there will presumably be more demand for such admittance.

The tapes and DVDs are often called “Academy screeners” because AMPAS voters were the first recipients. But since the late 1980s, thousands more have been added to the lists, including members of the directors, writers and actors guilds and organizations such as BAFTA, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and the Broadcast Film Critics Assn.

Longtime ambivalence

Studio execs have always been ambivalent about the mailing of screeners. On one hand, they want their films to be seen by the maximum number of voters. On the other hand, they want the pic to be seen on the bigscreen. “It’s an insult to the cinematographer, for example, to watch his work on TV,” one exec said.

That’s true with small films, but even more so with entries like Columbia’s “Big Fish,” Disney’s “The Alamo,” Fox’s “Master & Commander,” Miramax’s “Cold Mountain,” New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings,” Revolution’s “The Missing” and Warners’ “The Last Samurai.”

However, those films are the most likely to benefit from the proposal. An awards voter with limited time will often go see the biggies, relying on screeners for “smaller” pics. A few folk on Wednesday voiced concern that this is all an elaborate plan to squeeze out the little films. They raised questions about whether films like “Gosford Park,” “Far From Heaven” or “Pollock” would’ve fared as well if it weren’t for tapes.

Another question mark centers on Universal’s “Seabiscuit.” The studio has high hopes for the film, which will be released on DVD in December. Since this is a piracy issue, it’s not clear whether the studio will be asked not to send out copies of the film, since they will be available in stores.

More useful than ever

This year, the screeners might have been even more useful than in the past. With a shortened awards season — Oscar nomination ballots will be mailed Jan. 2 — voters may find that, due to work schedules, the holidays and family time, they would tend to rely more than usual upon tapes and DVDs.

The Academy had no comment Wednesday. Org is not part of the planning and has always kept mum about screeners. When studios mail screeners to Oscar voters, those lists are not supplied by the Acad. The official AMPAS policy has always been that voters should see all the contenders before they vote, and they should see them on the bigscreen.

Aside from the headaches for awards strategists and the practical considerations of voters (too busy to attend a screening, don’t like to drive at night, etc.), there is the matter of bruised egos. One campaigner predicted voter anger: There are a lot of people who want tapes. “Everyone’s so used to the convenience, the perk. It’s a badge of honor to own a current film — or they want to send out a screener as a Christmas gift.”

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