Scheme used for tapes last year now applied to discs

A year after MPAA-member studios failed in their attempt to apply strict controls to their distribution, DVD screeners remain a staple of the Hollywood awards season — and an essential tool for a time-challenged voting body like the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

But it’s not like the whole screener brouhaha last year — part of the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s larger war on digital piracy — came, went, and had no impact.

The awards screeners sent out this year have considerably more security features attached to them than in the past, and development continues on new protection technology.

Last year, after several months of intense legal wrangling, the major studios and the indies — which had previously applied little protection to their awards screeners — quickly sent out thousands of “watermarked” VHS screeners.

The movies were universally watchable on standard VCRs, but their magnetic source code contained invisible, indelible information about the screener’s recipient.

If the screener was used as source material for bootleg DVDs or illegal Internet downloads, the watermark allowed authorities to trace things all the way back to their disc of origin.

In November, for example, a federal court ordered a former member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to reimburse Warner Bros. and Sony $600,000. He was found to have shared screener copies of the WB’s “The Last Samurai” and the Sony’s “Big Fish” with a known DVD pirate.

Watermarks provided crucial evidence.

This year, the same watermarking is being widely applied to DVD screeners.

And with the forensic technology having proven itself to some degree, one studio exec says there’s “a lot more loose play” than there was a year ago in the way screeners are being distributed.

Last month, the major DVD manufacturing facilities, Deluxe and Technicolor, were busy producing watermarked screeners, each with a unique serial number.

Deluxe technology VP Jeff Dewolde expects his company will ship 100,000 screeners to various awards-voting bodies before Christmas. The vast majority, 95% of them, will be DVDs.

Of course, like all systems, it ain’t perfect.

The watermarked discs — which are encoded in the DVD-R format — are incompatible with some older players, about 1% of existing machines.

And even a watermarked screener will still yield high-quality copies. That means that on the supply side, the watermark acts as a deterrent against an awards voter sharing their screener with a bootlegger, but it doesn’t stop a pirate from stealing the disc.

Or, for that matter, it doesn’t stop a voter who passed of his or her screener to a pirate from saying it was stolen.

With that in mind, some studios sent voters letters in advance of their 2004 screener campaigns advising them of legal liability. The strategy doesn’t sit well with some.

“Personally, if I’m asked to sign something, I don’t,” says HFPA member Marlene von Arx. “By the time it gets to my house, I don’t know if something has happened to a particular screener — whether it’s been copied — but I’m asked to be held accountable.”

Beyond watermarking, a number of existing technologies could be in play for next awards season.

Studios including Disney and Universal have sought to curb the physical “pass-along” of screeners used to promote DVD releases by using self-destructing discs made by Flexplay Technologies. These DVDs begin to oxidize immediately after they’re removed from their air-tight packaging and become unreadable 48 hours later.

No major studio is using Flexplay discs yet for awards screeners, however.

Seeking an even more secure solution, earlier this year, Dolby Labs unit Cinea announced an agreement with the Academy, as well as with the British Academy for Film and Television, to send out more than 10,000 special DVD players to voters. Encrypted screeners would then be sent out that would only be viewable on these players. .

Cinea wasn’t able to deploy its players fast enough to get all the studios on board this year, but the company hopes that the majors will widely adopt its system in 2005.

Meanwhile, a screener program that did manage to get off the ground for this awards season is one jointly developed by the Independent Film Project and online DVD rental service Netflix for the Independent Spirit Awards.

The system allows Spirit Award voters to use a secure Website to order by mail DVDs of nominated films that Netflix already carries for its general subscriber base.

Since the discs have to be returned, the system prevents pass-along. There’s also some cost efficiency here: “We don’t have to produce a screener for every voter,” notes Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for Netflix. However, since the program relies on movies that have already been released on DVD, Netflix screeners of relevant indie films this year, such as “Sideways” — which is still in its theatrical window — are unavailable for Spirit Award voters. In fact, 15 of the IFP’s 35 nominations haven’t yet been released on DVD.Of course, the mature voting bodies of the HFPA and the Academy — and the major studios, who are so anxious about digital piracy at this point — aren’t necessarily known for their quick adoption of new technology. And those developing new screener schemes are hindered by that to some degree.

Netflix, for example, plans to bow a consumer video-on-demand service with TiVo next year, and could, theoretically, create a system in which voters could download encrypted movies directly to their televisions.

Given how difficult it was to get everyone on board for this year’s Spirit Awards program, Sarandos dismisses the logistical possibility of such a new video-on-demand-based system.

“This is a pretty old-school town,” he says. “Nobody likes ‘new’ and ‘fast’ in Hollywood. I think we’re married to (DVDs) for a while.”

For her part, the HFPA’s von Arx says the best technology is ultimately the one that’s been around the longest — theatrical screenings. “Obviously, you always want to see a movie on the big screen,” she says. “And you try your best to do so.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more