Slow upload for digital screeners

Oscar campaigners don't embrace platform

DVD screeners just seem so late-20th century in the age of streaming video and digital downloads. But studios have been slow to embrace the high-tech option for reaching Academy voters — in part due to the Acad’s early rules this awards season — with the majors and mini-majors largely taking a wait-and-see approach to the new format.

“It’s definitely the wave of the future, but it’s not the reality of 2012,” says an Academy member who was perplexed by the dearth of titles available via streaming. “It’s their loss if I don’t watch it, not mine.”

A few months ago, the password-protected digital screener — which supporters say is less prone to piracy — seemed poised to replace the watermarked DVD. In October, Paramount made “Rango,” “Super 8” and “Like Crazy” available online to visual effects voters, though it opted in favor of hard copies for “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

“On the whole, we felt it was worthwhile to do, and cost-wise, it is less expensive,” explains a Paramount exec. Still, the three digitally available titles did not make the Academy’s video effects shortlist, while “Transformers” and “Captain America” did make the cut. The studio mulled whether to offer its titles digitally to other groups as well, but wound up scrapping such plans.

One major concern among studios and filmmakers is the size of the viewing screen. Though digital downloads likely translate into a greater number of eyeballs, the quality of presentation could be compromised.

“Can you imagine someone watching ‘War Horse’ on an iPod touch?” asks an awards strategist”At least with a DVD screener, you can ensure that the smallest device the film can be watched on is a laptop.”

Around town, few welcomed the new tool, which proponents say is cheaper, more environmentally friendly and, like a DVD, can be watched on TV if the viewer has a computer-to-TV cable or router. Sony, which is working on campaigns for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “Arthur Christmas,” among others, didn’t use digital screeners for the first phase of the awards season, but was considering the option for the final stretch. Universal’s “Bridesmaids” went out to Oscar voters by snail mail only.

The Weinstein Co. sent a mixed message by nixing a digital version of “The Artist” but approving one for documentary “Undefeated.” The approach seems to have paid off for the football-themed pic helmed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, which made the Oscar shortlist.

Lionsgate streamed “Warrior,” while Fox Searchlight says the format was up for discussion.

But perhaps the biggest reason digital screeners didn’t catch fire this awards season was Academy policy: the Acad initially mandated an exclusive choice — screener copies could be distributed either digitally or physically, but not both. It eventually changed course, approving a title to go out both ways, but by then, most strategists had allocated their budgets for a hard copy-only onslaught.

“No one in their right mind would send (a movie) out only digitally,” says an awards strategist.

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