BAFTA voters awash in DVDs

When BAFTA voters received their screeners of “A History of Violence” a couple of weeks ago, it marked a watershed in the history of the British Academy Film Awards.

It’s the first time that Entertainment Film Distributors, for years the most determined refusenik against the screener trend, has voluntarily sent out copies of a movie not already on general video release.

It has followed “History of Violence” with screeners of “The Libertine” and Oscar frontrunner “Brokeback Mountain,” with “The New World” to come.

All will be encrypted to play only on Cinea machines. Entertainment toppers Nigel and Trevor Green always had a principled objection to screeners on piracy grounds, but the advent of Cinea has resolved that problem.

That’s a massive relief to BAFTA’s top brass, who feared a repeat of last year’s embarrassment when “Million Dollar Baby” failed to make an impact because Entertainment didn’t send out DVDs. It should be noted that missing out on the BAFTAs didn’t obviously hurt the pic’s U.K. box office, but that’s a different discussion.

BAFTA members might recall receiving videos of Entertainment’s “Gangs of New York” two years ago, but that happened only because Harvey Weinstein rode roughshod over the Greens’ opposition.

Fox is another distrib back in the screener game after “Sideways,” sans screeners, got squeezed out of last year’s running. Fox is sending out “Walk the Line,” which hasn’t yet opened in Blighty, along with “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Star Wars: Episode III — Return of the Sith,” which are both on general video release.

” ‘Sideways’ did concentrate our minds on the issue,” says Fox U.K. topper Simon Hewlett. For films not yet released, he says, “We concluded that if we’re not doing screeners, there’s no point doing a campaign.”

Only Paramount (traditionally a reluctant campaigner) and DreamWorks (usually among the most aggressive) are sitting on the sidelines this year.

So there’s no push for “War of the Worlds,” which was much praised by Brit crix but is now forgotten in the mists of summer; and no screeners planned for “Munich,” which has had a distinctly lukewarm reception from its couple of BAFTA screenings. Steven Spielberg already looks out of the running in this year’s BAFTA race.

Cinea may have brought Entertainment into the screener game, but it hasn’t been unreservedly welcomed by BAFTA members. There’s much grumbling that the Cinea machines only play region 2 (i.e., European) DVDs, whereas in Blighty (and certainly among BAFTA voters) it’s the norm for people to own multiregion machines.

So the Cinea player cannot be a permanent substitute for their existing machines — and for some BAFTA members, the idea of temporarily rewiring their entire home cinema systems just to watch a couple of DVDs simply isn’t worth the hassle. Of course, if that means voters are forced to go to the cinema to catch “Brokeback Mountain,” then the Greens would say that’s exactly as it should be.

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