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Studios send out screeners

Fear of piracy quelled by watermarking DVDs

So many award screeners are circulating this year, for movies that have not even opened, that it’s easy to forget that not too long ago these DVDs were guarded with a combination of suspicion and paranoia.

In truth, that was only five years ago, when studios tried to clamp down on the practice of sending them out over fears of piracy, to the point where they all but threatened a kind of excommunication to those who gave them to non-eligible voters.

But since then, studios and indie distribs have come to realize that they can’t afford to stay out of the screener game, even if the DVDs are passed around to more than just eligible voters.

In a move that surprised even the most cynical awards expert, Paramount has already sent out DVDs of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which doesn’t open nationwide until Christmas Day.

Screeners of limited releases sent out before the films’ theatrical bows include “Revolutionary Road,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Doubt,” “The Wrestler,” “Che,” “Last Chance Harvey” and “Defiance” (this is only a partial list).

Studios and their trade org, the Motion Picture Assn. of America, say piracy is no longer an issue because of watermarking. Make no mistake, screeners still carry a variety of admonitions about theft or copying. A few even carry the command: “Break this video in half after viewing.”

And even if people who have nothing to do with awards voting end up with screeners, the conventional wisdom is that it is still worth it. In Los Angeles and New York, screeners are so ubiquitous, you’re bound to run into a civilian who has one screener or another, such as at a small apartment complex in West Hollywood, where a person twice removed from the entertainment biz was passing around a copy of “Frost/Nixon” before the film opened. Likewise, a man in New York was given a copy of “Doubt” by his boss, a member of SAG who hasn’t acted in years.

The latest frenzy can be traced, at least in part, to “Crash.” After Lionsgate took the unprecedented step of sending DVDs to every single member of SAG, on top of the usual mailing list, the film nabbed the 2005 Oscar for best picture in one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history.

“Crash” was already out on DVD, making things easier, but its successful Oscar bid was a big lesson for the competish, which tries to exert some measure of control against piracy by watermarking awards screeners.

Not even the economic downturn has stemmed the tide. Awards consultants say each screener costs about $15 to $20. That adds up when you are talking about thousands of awards voters, whether members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., labor guilds, AFI or others.

This push to get screeners out early is a matter of the realities of campaign competition. With Oscar nominating ballots due Dec. 26, distributors don’t want screeners to end up at the bottom of voters’ DVD piles, which could easily happen if distribs wait until the movie opens in theaters. Screeners have been arriving in mailboxes at a steady clip since after Thanksgiving.

“There’s a pecking order that happens,” one Academy member says, noting that he has yet to receive an “Australia” screener, which he doesn’t have time to see in a theater.

Fox is sending screeners out the week of Dec. 22 to Oscar and Golden Globe voters. Interestingly enough, the film has received little awards attention. It opened in theaters over Thanksgiving.

“Producers like Scott Rudin incorporate screeners into their plans right from the start,” one studio exec says. “There’s a sort of gentlemen’s agreement with studios.”

In other words, it’s doubtful that anything will make Hollywood part with its screeners.

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