Kudo contenders to roam free on DVD

In the past three years, the pendulum has swung wide in the Hollywood screener wars. Now, things seem back to normal. Well, normal levels of hysteria, anyway.

When a judge declared in October 2003 that the studios’ proposed screener ban was illegal, the studios clamped down, mailing out far fewer screeners and setting up an arduous process that included hand delivery and oaths of responsibility for the fate of each disc.

In contrast, the number of screeners hit an all-time high last season, thanks to Lionsgate sending out more than 100,000 screeners, including a never-before-attempted mailing to all members of the Screen Actors Guild.

This year, it’s back to pre-2003 days. The studios are mailing to all the voting groups and a name that dominated screener news for the past two years — Cinea — has largely ended its award season work.

In the past two years, Cinea has sent out free DVD players that play specially copyprotected DVDs.

But Disney was the only studio to use Cinea technology in the U.S. to protect its discs from potential piracy. (New Line, Universal and several indies used Cinea for BAFTA members in the U.K.)

The screener program, on which Cinea lost millions, was largely a technique to brand its name for the press and the studios.

With that accomplished, it’s not going to pursue new screener deals. Cinea VP Larry Roth says, “Our message to studios now is, ‘If you want to use it, we’re here for you.’ “

The hysteria this year is not about piracy and watermarking — it’s once again based on the chaotic, squeezed kudos calendar.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is sending out nomination ballots Dec. 26 — the earliest date ever. Since some key contenders open in late December, awards campaigners will duplicate discs based on a “wet” print.

The trick is when to send out the discs. You want to get the film in the hands of the Oscar voters quickly, but you can’t send out a title just as it hits theaters.

Fox Searchlight was the first out of the gate, with mailings of “Little Miss Sunshine,” which bows soon on DVD.

The majors take the piracy problem seriously. They have entire legal teams devoted to the matter. But with all the tech innovations in the past few years, awards screeners are not their chief concern.

Some of the studios’ niche divisions are more lax, watermarking many (but not all) the screeners. Because it’s significantly cheaper.

Indies often ignore watermarking all together. As one jokes, “We’re sending out little foreign-language films. We’d be thrilled if people are interested enough to pirate them!”

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