Shorter season, no home-viewing disrupting process

HOLLYWOOD — Attention, Oscar voters: This awards season, you should be prepared to attend more screenings, in a shorter amount of time than usual, and without food.

But try to have fun anyway.

This kudos season presents a worst-case scenario for the conscientious voter. Last week, MPAA topper Jack Valenti was huddling with CEOs of the major studios to eliminate screeners — DVDs and videos sent out to voters for the Academy Awards and other year-end film prizes.

Though the idea of studio heads agreeing on anything seems far-fetched, this proposal seems ready to happen, and quickly. And there’s not much time to mull it over, because studios have to book screening rooms pronto.

The new wrinkle joins two others this year.

The season is shorter than usual: Ballots go out Jan. 2, meaning less time to see year-end openers.

And this is the year of a campaigning crackdown. With the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ longstanding policy against studios serving food or drink at an Acad screening, the fast-food biz may be on the upswing in December.

Studio execs have historically been ambivalent about screener DVDs and tapes, preferring voters see a film on the bigscreen. But they’d rather the film be viewed on TV than not seen at all.

This screener cease-fire, however, is due to biz reasons, not aesthetic ones. In the last few years, digital technology has made copying easy, and pirated copies of brand-new films were popping up all over the place.

Many studio execs are enthused about the screener ban. One says this is a chance to clean up the whole process.

But will everyone stick to the plan?

Cynics are already raising questions.

“They think they’re solving a problem,” says one Academy member. “But when a pirated version of one of the films shows up, what happens? It means that all this prevention didn’t work. And all it takes is one copy for the pirates to make their copies.”

Another key issue is how to handle films already available on DVD. This year, for example, Universal’s “Seabiscuit” and Disney’s “Finding Nemo” will be on sale by mid-December. (In contrast, contenders like Miramax’s “Cold Mountain” will be opening only one week before ballots are due.)

Here’s another scenario: Next year, the awards season will kick off in May. A mid-year opener will be available on DVD by the end of the year, meaning it could be eligible for mailing.

So by December 2004, voters could sit at home, watching the contenders — lazy, relaxed and eating their favorite snacks.

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