Can online access replace DVDs?

YOUTUBE THIS WEEK signed a deal to stream full-length MGM pics. Other films and TV episodes are widely available on the Web, which raises the question: Why don’t studios stream all those “for your consideration” films rather than send out DVD screeners? Especially at a time of urgent cost-cutting across the biz?

Well, in fact, the studios are already looking into this. But until some tech problems are worked out, it’s unlikely any major will offer screeners via Web streaming this season. However, don’t be surprised if some enterprising indie pioneers the switch. Just as voters are being offered a Blu-ray option this year, the streaming possibility looms in upcoming seasons.

Ever since Sony Pictures Classics first sent out a videocassette of the 1988 “Camille Claudel,” screeners have inspired gratitude, enthusiasm, anger and even lawsuits. Every year people say “Voters should see films on the bigscreen,” but who’s kidding whom? The phenomenon isn’t going away.

TUBTHUMPING OF PICS through streaming and downloads solves many problems — though it raises a lot of questions as well.

The system is more eco-friendly than DVDs — and it’s significantly cheaper. One awards strategist said the DVD tab can add up to $150,000 per title.

In addition, streaming could broaden the voting pool. For example, certain branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (documentary, foreign-language, etc.) require voters to see all the contenders in their category. This entails setting up screenings in several major cities. But if voters could stream the film, this could bring in people who don’t live in those cities.

The use of passwords or other security devices would allow AMPAS to track whether the voter has in fact streamed the film. (So far, technology doesn’t allow techies to determine whether a voter has fallen asleep in front of the screen or went into the kitchen for prolonged stretches, but even that may change.)

But if voters streamed movies onto their home computers, the two big concerns are piracy and the size of the screen. (“Juno” and “Lars and the Real Girl” would play just dandy on a 15-inch laptop. “Lord of the Rings,” not so much.)

For the benefit of the 14,000 Emmy voters, Showtime execs set up a website in March making “for your consideration” TV shows available for streaming. Richard Licata, Showtime’s exec VP of corporate communications, said their shows garnered 50,000 hits, bringing kudos attention to fare like “Dexter” and saving the cabler “tens of thousands of dollars” that would have been spent on discs and mailings.

FOR THE UNINITIATED — and God knows Daily Variety readers are the most intelligent folk in the world, but a few of you may have a wee bit of techno-dyslexia — downloading means you log onto a website with a password, grab a film like “No Country for Old Men” and transfer a copy onto your computer.

Downloads can be watermarked, at a fraction of the cost of watermarking DVDs. But it can take four or five hours to download a two-hour film.

However, streaming only requires a few minutes of setup time. When everything is working properly, the film begins playing on your computer with a click of the play button, but no permanent copy is left on your hardrive.

But security for streaming is still not perfected, and studios want to protect their films (and, just as important, catch the person who’s pirating). For the viewer, the big issue is quality control. There’s nothing worse that having the vid freeze up or pixelate just when the pic is getting to the good part because your broadband connection has suddenly slowed down.

There are devices that will allow a person to stream a title onto their computer and simultaneously bounce it to their giant-screen TV. (Think Apple’s much ballyhooed Apple TV device from a few years ago.) But this equipment is not yet widespread, or glitch-free.

And then there’s the Hawaii-Aspen Factor. A lot of kudos voters annually grab a handful of DVDs and watch them during their prolonged December holiday. But how long is it going to take before the laptop-TV linkup becomes portable?

It’s not likely the majors will switch over to Web streaming this season. But technology is changing so fast, this is a real possibility next year. And, let’s face it, what’s more fun during awards season than reminding people that they will have new issues to fret about next season?

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