Screener disconnect

Piracy drives disc-ord

The awards-season fight against piracy is making progress, but at what price?

Thanks to the coding on screeners, the FBI and MPAA have been tracking down the sources of some pic piracy. But awards voters are complaining of an inordinate number of faulty discs this year, attributed by many to the fact that many screeners are on discs made in the DVD-R format.

When studios manufacture discs for public consumption, they use standard DVDs. When manufacturing just a few thousand, as happens with screeners, they use the cheaper DVD-R — and, as awards voters are discovering, DVD-Rs often don’t work with DVD players more than a couple of years old.

Kudos voters, most of whom aren’t techies and who weren’t sent any explanations, just assume they have a faulty disc. While this confusion is a hassle, it raises bigger implications: Will the tech woes affect the outcome of the balloting?

Frustrated voters

In a shortened awards season, many voters have complained they don’t have the time or patience to find an alternate version of the film, so the nominated pic goes unseen and loses votes. Talking to Daily Variety, several voters rattled off the names of nominated films that they did not watch because of the disc problems.

Even before watermarking, 1%-2% of screeners were faulty. But the DVD-R factor is creating apparent glitches on more of them.

Another factor is making some screeners go unwatched: The antipiracy strategy of asking awards voters to sign for delivery of their screeners. Several Acad voters say they have missed contenders this year because they weren’t home to sign for FedEx delivery.

With dozens of films to wade through in a short campaign season, one Acad member sighs that he has a full-time job and gets annoyed with the notice that screeners are waiting to be claimed at the FedEx office: “I don’t have time for this.”

Watermarking is pricey: It can cost $7-$12 a disc, and the studios send out 8,000-9,000 copies of a title to members of various awards-voting organizations. Studios consider it a wise investment, though, when it helps to nab pirates.

Watermarking aids probe

The FBI last week acknowledged that watermarking has helped the org connect pirated copies of “Million Dollar Baby” to the screeners (Daily Variety, Jan. 9). No charges have yet been filed, but the title has been traced to a guild member. Other pirated titles traced to awards screeners are said to include “Spanglish” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”

Studio trackers go online to find the source of pirated films, then pass the evidence to the FBI to jumpstart a criminal investigation. The vast majority of this year’s Oscar-nominated films are available online.

The presence of copies from watermarked screeners clearly indicate the studios have yet to fully contain the screener piracy problem.

Voters are discovering that even troublesome DVD-R copies play fine on the free machines they got from antipiracy company Cinea. The machines originally were intended to be used for specially encrypted discs — but the players also work with DVD-R, meaning kudos voters may find the Cinea machines useful while they wait to find out whether studios decide to encrypt their discs to work only on those players next awards season.

One Academy member pointed out an alternate solution to all of the problems: “Voters should be seeing these movies on the bigscreen anyway.”