Oscar’s early call

Five months before kudocast, season kicks off

It’s later than you think.

Sony Pictures Classics has given an unofficial kickoff to the awards season by mailing screeners of “Junebug” to kudos voters.

Some execs may be dismayed that the season is here already, five months until the March 5 Academy Awards. But the campaigning has subtly begun shifting to earlier dates in the past few years. Even before the September mailing of screeners, there have been awards hype at festivals, Q&A sessions on both coasts and “for your consideration” ads appearing in Tuesday’s Daily Variety.

Among the usual hopefuls in the film biz is a company that may see a make-or-break kudos season: Cinea.

After a lot of hoopla announcing its new antipiracy system, the division of Dolby in 2004 sent nearly 12,000 secure DVD players — free of charge — to Oscar and British Academy of Film & Television Arts voters. But Cinea suffered a series of snafus, and the result was no studio used its technology to manufacture screeners. Company is hoping 2005 will see a payoff in its $5 million investment.

So far, no studio has committed to Cinea. “We’re in active operational tests with a good number of studios and in negotiations with them all,” said Cinea VP of marketing Laurence Roth. “We look forward to the studios making their decisions.”

Many studio reps claim they are still undecided on what format they will send out screeners. However, Sony Classics’ “Junebug” has gone out on a traditional watermarked DVD. DreamWorks and Focus Features have similarly decided to go with watermarked DVDs; Sony will not use Cinea.

A couple of majors are said to be leaning toward Cinea. They need to make decisions soon, as they’ll have to start production on the first screeners in the near future.

Academy Awards ballots will be mailed out Dec. 29. Most screeners are sent out between Thanksgiving and early January. There are different philosophies on when to send them: Will an early mailing mean the film is in risk of being forgotten? Will a late mailing mean a film gets lost in the shuffle?

Michael Barker, co-topper with Tom Bernard of Sony Classics, acknowledged Wednesday, “It made sense for us to do an unconventional strategy and send out the film before the onslaught.”

Backers of a smaller title like “Junebug” require some ingenuity to grab some attention from the big-name films during the season.

As for Cinea, testing is ongoing and the interested studios need to make sure the system works. With the studios at best split, many industryites are wary of being first to take the Cinea plunge.

“If you’re in the screener game, you have to make sure your film gets watched,” one campaigner said. Since many awards voters watch screeners on vacation, will they want to lug the Cinea machine with them? (A watermarked disc works on any machine that plays DVDs. The watermark simply lets studios track a pirated copy back to its source.)

Nearly as crucial, the studios need to make sure that voters will register their machines. The Cinea discs will only play on a registered Cinea player, and nobody wants to send out a disc if it won’t be watched.

So far, about 40% of the combined Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and BAFTA members, just under 5,000 people, have registered their Cinea players.

Last year, the Academy notified members they’d get a free machine unless they requested to not get one. Only about 200 declined. Those 200 and the approximately 100 new AMPAS members are eligible to get machines this year, if they haven’t already.

AMPAS is looking to light a fire under nonregistrants with an October DVD mailing of “Ryan,” the 2004 Oscar-winning short that’s Cinea-encoded. The message is that machine holders should get the hookup-and-registration process in motion.

Cinea’s Roth acknowledged that some awards voters may be using Cinea players in bedrooms or keeping them in closets but said the company would be sending reminders on how to install and register the devices to all AMPAS and BAFTA members this year if screeners go out.

Company is sending out discs to members that when used on the S-View player upgrade its technical capabilities.

Cinea’s S-View player works in conjunction with specially encrypted screeners. If the screener is pirated, Cinea can tell exactly which player was used and when. (The S-View appliance will play regular watermarked DVDs as well but will not be able to provide details if a screener is pirated.)

The watermarked system is a less-effective piracy deterrent, but the DVDs work.

Meanwhile, Cinea is awaiting studios’ decisions. Many have sent out questionnaires to voters, asking in what format they prefer their screeners this year: VHS, DVD or PAL (the European format).

The past two years have provided a mixed message on piracy. In early 2004 actor Carmine Caridi was kicked out of the Academy for providing screeners to a pirate. In March, a Corona man was charged with copying a DVD of “Finding Neverland” that was sent to a Producers Guild of America member. This week, Ronald Redding, a member of the Screen Actors Guild nominating committee, pleaded guilty to copyright infringement for sharing his screener of Warner Bros.’ “Million Dollar Baby.”

For some, this is proof enough that screeners are a critical issue when dealing with piracy. Others are more complacent, pointing out that camcording in theaters is a much bigger problem.

As in the past two years, studio execs are skittish about addressing the subject, thanks to the Dec. 5, 2003, legal decision that charged them with collusion in a proposed screener ban.

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