Indie sends screeners made to self-destruct

This article was updated at 7:07 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Distributor MK2 has a plan to make an “Elephant” disappear.

In what could serve as a test-drive solution for U.S. distribs to ponder using in next year’s awards season, the Gallic indie is sending out screeners of Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or winner to Cesar award voters this week on Flexplay DVDs, which self-destruct after 48 hours.

Move is meant to limit the screeners’ vulnerability to piracy by preventing the pass-along of discs from Cesar voters to people outside the French movie academy.

The Cesars will be handed out Feb. 21.

Effort marks the first use of the limited-play disc technology for awards screeners. Connecticut-based Flexplay offered the technology to U.S. distribs in the wake of the MPAA’s ban on Academy Award screeners, but none opted to try it.

Conversations between the company and the studios have continued, however, as companies look to next year’s kudos season.

Given the uproar over the MPAA screener ban and the court battle that ensued before it was overthrown earlier this month, the studios and the MPAA likely will be looking in 2004 to implement a policy that addresses the piracy issue but still allows for the distribution of screeners. Technology like the Flexplay system could be one such answer.

Flexplay uses a chemical process in specially manufactured DVDs to render the discs unplayable after a fixed period of time.

Discs come packed in air-tight vacuum pouches. Once they are exposed to air, the chemical process begins, turning the discs black after the specified period, making them opaque to the laser pickups in DVD players.

By adjusting the chemicals, the play period can be varied from eight hours to 72 hours.

Disney is testing the discs commercially in the U.S. under the name EZ-D. So far, the studio has released 16 EZ-D titles in four test markets.

Discs sell for $5.99-$6.99 and play for 48 hours.

Disney is hoping to appeal to lapsed video renters by eliminating the return trip to Blockbuster as well as late fees.

Flexplay CEO Alan Blaustein called the technology an effective way to address one part of the screener dilemma.

“There are really two parts to the (screener) piracy question: copy-protection and pass-alongs,” Blaustein said. “Most of the companies we’ve talked to are very comfortable with the first level of people who get the screeners, the people who work in the studio or are part of the Academy. It’s when they get into secondary or tertiary hands that they find their way into the wrong part of the market.”

The “Elephant” discs are also encrypted with CSS to prevent copying, although the CSS codes have been widely hacked.

Since a federal court lifted the ban on screeners in the U.S., in fact, several late-season awards contenders have appeared on the Internet, purportedly ripped from screeners.

Among the titles to turn up on Internet index sites in recent days: “House of Sand and Fog,” “Mona Lisa Smile” and “Elf.”

Blaustein called MK2’s plan for “Elephant” a “good use” for the Flexplay process but admits the company did not anticipate that awards screeners might become a significant market when it was developing the technology.

“I’d say our timing was pretty fortuitous,” he said.

(David Rooney in New York contributed to this report.)

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