Tap-dancing on tapes

Studios still fuzzy on strategy for screeners

THESE TAPES ARE GOING OUT

Dreamworks: House of Sand and Fog
Focus Features: 21 Grams, Sylvia, Lost in Translation, Swimming Pool
Fox: Master & Commander, X2, Runaway Jury
Fox Searchlight: Thirteen, In America
Miramax: Cold Mountain, City of God, Kill Bill Vol.1, Dirty Pretty Things, The Station Agent, among others
Sony Classics: Fog of War, The Statement, Monsieur Ibrahim, The Company, The Triplets of Belleville
UA: Pieces of April
Lions Gate: Shattered Glass, The Cooler, Girl with a Pearl Earring

A week after the Big Decision, many studios are still very quiet about the next decision.

As of Thursday, Disney, New Line, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros. hadn’t announced which films they’ll be sending on cassette to Academy voters.

However, DreamWorks, Focus Features, Fox, Fox Searchlight, Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics and United Artists have made plans for their titles (see chart).

With an earlier Oscarcast, time is of the essence, so what’s taking Hollywood so long?

It’s entirely possible that decisions have been made, but that studios, as always, are cautious to make any awards pronouncements until they know what their rivals are doing. (It’s interesting split between who’s talking and who’s not. But the general consensus among the majors is that they will be sending out the year-end biggies.)

However, one studio exec said, “We haven’t decided on which titles to send out because we’re still trying to decide on the rest of this stuff.”

The other “stuff” includes questions of money and security. The majors are exploring which coding method will best deter piracy. And since the Academy member will sign a statement attesting that he or she is responsible for the tape, the studios have to make sure that the duplication site, shipping facility and the messenger services all guarantee airtight security.

The mailings will be a more expensive process this year, involving messengers (so that the Academy member can sign for the cassette) and possible overtime/rush charges at the duplication house, which will need more time to put a watermark or code on the tape.

Another factor contributing to the delay: Studio execs last month were working on the supposition that screeners were a closed issue. After the MPAA announced a complete ban, marketing departments forged ahead with Plan B (i.e., more bigscreen showings, etc.). Since the announcement that Academy voters will be allowed screeners (Daily Variety, Oct. 24), studios have been trying to clear up several areas of confusion before making any decisions.

One studio question: Since the MPAA has emphasized that the screener cutback is an anti-piracy move, can a studio mail tapes to other groups (BAFTA, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., etc.) if the title is already on DVD? The answer: No. The decision is firm — only Acad voters get screeners.

Lorenzo Soria, HFPA prexy, said his org is working to lift the ban on his and other groups. Meanwhile, the HFPA has decided it will reimburse members for any expenses if they pay to see a film at a local theater or rent it at a video store. “If somebody can’t make it to a screening, we’re giving them an option. We hope it will cover a great number of films.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences said Thursday that approximately 2,000 of its 5,800 voters so far have returned a signed form in which the voter avers full responsibility for the tape sent to them.

The org will give the list to studios next week, with updates every few days as more forms are returned.

It’s unlikely the Acad will break down the voter list by branches. Studios often target films to certain branches, such as actors or visual effects. But a studio will probably have to rely on its own list, which execs and awards consultants compile themselves (and which have been jealously guarded by those involved).

The Acad has never before provided a list of its voters to studios. This year, the org will give a roster only of those voters who have returned a signed form.

The studios are under pressure to make a quick decision about cassettes. Last year at this time, screener plans were firmly in place. With the shorter awards season this year, delays would seem dangerous.

However, there are a few factors that give them a little wiggle room. First, there are fewer cassettes to be made, and the deadlines are not as rigid. (Some voting groups, such as the Broadcast Film Critics and the HFPA, had early-December deadline to receive screeners.)

There still remains a question of cassette glut.

In the past, awards voters have been bombarded with tapes — 68 titles were sent out last year — which were sent out in the November-January period. Some, like Fox Searchlight, made a point of sending out tapes early to make sure their titles did not get lost in the screener avalanche.

This year, there will presumably be fewer titles, but there is a strong danger that all the tapes will be delivered at roughly the same time as studios rush to meet awards deadlines (Oscar ballots will be mailed Jan. 2).

Early-mailing strategies may not be possible and some are worried that their smaller titles will get overlooked amid a flurry of high-profile releases.

Lions Gate — which is not an MPAA signatory, and thus not bound by MPAA restrictions — will send out “Shattered Glass,” “The Cooler” and “Girl With a Pearl Earring” on VHS and DVD. The company is definitely sending the titles to Acad members but so far is undecided on whether the films will be going out to other groups.

(Cathy Dunkley and David Rooney contributed to this report.)

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