Guild reverses longstanding policy

By giving the go-ahead to studios and distributors to send “for your consideration” screeners to its members, the Directors Guild of America has knocked down the last significant wall of resistance to allowing awards-season voters to evaluate films at home.

The Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild of America and Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences have long embraced screeners. But save for a controversial and quickly reversed surrender in 2006, the DGA has been a holdout – and by its own admission, an anachronistic one.

The DGA cited a change in industry standards in regarding the screeners and the needs of members who live outside major metropolitan areas.

The DGA’s national board made its decision Saturday. With more than 14,500 members, the guild had held back on allowing screeners in the belief that those films would have an advantage over those that could not be sent out due to limited marketing budgets or other financial constraints of studios and distributors.

Indeed, the cost of sending out screeners to this branch of Hollywood could total hundreds of thousands of dollars per film – more than it costs to send to the Producers Guild of America, WGA or SAG nominating committee – and will need to be carved out of budgets that are relatively if not emphatically firm. Presumably, some distributors can’t or won’t choose to spend the money to take advantage of the new permission.

But while noting that “there’s nothing better than watching a movie on the bigscreen, exactly as the director intended,” DGA prexy Taylor Hackford acknowledged that it was better to create the greatest opportunity for viewing each film. As one awards consultant said, the decision wouldn’t have come without demand from within the guild.

Others have pointed out that for many voters, home screening offers a more conducive environment than a viewing at a conventional movie theater – an issue that tangentially remains a concern for theatrical distributors – meaning that it was becoming harder to argue that screeners were inherently inferior.

Nevertheless, the DGA, whose next awards are set for Feb. 2, said it will continue to operate its theatrical screening program at its theaters in Los Angeles and New York, with additional screenings in Chicago, San Francisco, London and Washington, D.C. In addition, the guild noted that members can continue to use their DGA membership cards to obtain free admission to certain public screenings in commercial theaters (not all studios participate in this program).

The DGA briefly appeared to relent on screeners in December 2006, when Paramount was told by someone at the guild that it could send out screeners of the Bill Condon-directed “Dreamgirls” – leading the studio to prep the DVDs – only to see the DGA reverse course and then apologize for the confusion.

At the time, the DGA maintained that it had never said studios couldn’t send out screeners, but in its apology, the guild acknowledged that screeners were not allowed. In fact, the DGA has had a December blackout policy forbidding any kudos-related outreach from the studios to guild members.

Adding to the mystery, the DGA said it would allow screeners to be mailed the following year but that never happened until now.

What resistance to screeners still exists may be confined to the Oscar animation and foreign-language categories, for which voters are expected to see all contenders in theaters.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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