Screeners back in action

Studios created two versions of titles for various constituencies

To send or not to send: That has been the Oscar-screener question for the past three years.

In olden times — i.e., before 2003 — studios stroked filmmaker egos by mailing DVD screeners for a slew of pics with slim awards hopes. And they mailed the films freely to various voting groups and press members.

Studios have reconsidered their options since the Screener Wars of October 2003 and devised a streamlined operation designed to send awards-worthy films to an awards-voting population.

The Screener Season has only begun, but there’s already a trend: Universal, Paramount and Fox Searchlight have created two versions of their titles for the various constituencies.

U and Par are sending out two-disc versions of their respective “United 93” and “World Trade Center” to various voting orgs, with the second disc containing “making of” docus. But since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and BAFTA have strict rules about the content of screeners — just the film, nothing else — a separate DVD went to those groups.

Similarly, Searchlight’s packaging of “Little Miss Sunshine” to Oscar voters contains no artwork, per Acad rules. Other orgs’ voters, however, get the film’s group photo and slogan.

The heavy season for mailings begins around Thanksgiving. Studios traditionally wait for a film to play in theaters for a few weeks before sending screeners, which means voters can expect screeners of December launches late in the month or even early January.

Kudos-season frenzy aside, studios and indies indicate that the screener situation has finally settled down.

First there was the piracy threat. Then they resorted to expensive, time-consuming watermarking. Then there was Cinea. It’s been enough to make every publicist’s head spin.

But for studios, the threat of screener piracy proved to be a blessing.

Fear of illicit copies removed the obligation to distribute expensive box sets. Likewise, piracy served as an excellent culling tool that allowed studios to trim their lists of pesky nonvoters.

“It used to be some of (the movies) were really laughable in terms of award consideration,” said Fox Searchlight chief operating officer Nancy Utley. “Now they’re sending ones that actually have a shot. Otherwise, it’s too expensive.”

Utley points out, however, that no one’s laughing at the prospect of piracy; Searchlight, like most distributors, now sends only watermarked DVDs for awards consideration.

Studios initially balked at watermarks, saying they were too expensive. They weren’t wrong, as each one adds about $6-$7 to the cost of a DVD, but it’s now viewed as no more than the cost of doing business.

The cost of doing business with Cinea, however, appears to be too high. Last year, Disney was the only studio to use the technology to protect its discs in the U.S.; this year, it’s unlikely any studio will go the Cinea route for its Stateside screeners.

A sampling of the upcoming title wave:

From 20th Century Fox, voters can expect to see “The Devil Wears Prada,” “X-Men: The Last Stand” for sound effects, “Ice Age: The Meltdown” for animated film and “Flicka” for song with Tim McGraw’s “My Little Girl.”

Fox also has high hopes for “Borat,” at least as far as the Golden Globes; a Sacha Baron Cohen/Borat Sagdiyev Q&A with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. was a big hit.

Warner Bros. will mail out “The Departed,” “Blood Diamond,” “The Fountain,” “Superman Returns,” “We Are Marshall” and “The Good German,” while Warner Independent will support “For Your Consideration” (Catherine O’Hara, supporting actress) “The Painted Veil” (Naomi Watts, actress) and “Infamous” (Toby Jones and Sandra Bullock, supporting).

Disney will send “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” “The Prestige” and “Cars,” while specialty label Miramax Films will send “Venus,” starring Peter O’Toole, and Stephen Frears’ “The Queen.”

New Line Cinema is throwing its weight behind Todd Field’s “Little Children.”

Lionsgate will do only one mass screener mailing, for “Akeelah and the Bee,” which will go to Academy members, critics’ orgs and the SAG nominating committee. (AMPAS prexy Sid Ganis produced the pic.) The indie will likely send screeners of three documentaries — “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” and “Deliver Us From Evil” — only to critics’ groups.

Sony Pictures Classics will mail “Volver,” “Friends With Money” and “Curse of the Golden Flower”; expect to see Sony proper throw its weight behind Will Smith vehicle “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

Fox Searchlight will send out no fewer than a half dozen pictures. “Little Miss Sunshine” has already become ubiquitous; “Water,” “The History Boys,” “The Last King of Scotland” and “Thank You for Smoking” will follow in the next two weeks, with “Notes on a Scandal” to come in mid-December.

Similarly, Weinstein Co. will submit “Bobby,” “Breaking & Entering,” “Factory Girl” and “Shut Up and Sing.” “Miss Potter” will also be submitted, but post-production will determine whether there’s enough time to make a watermarked screening copy.

Utley said Searchlight sent films to the WGA, which the studio hadn’t done in the past. The reason: “The strongest tool you have is the number of people who see the movie.”

Or, as others might put it, “Crash.” Last year, Lionsgate’s best picture winner benefited from more than 130,000 screeners, the most ever distributed for a film.

(Timothy M. Gray, Dave McNary, Pamela McClintock, Nicole LaPorte, Gabriel Snyder and Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.)

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