×

With screeners being mailed out in early September and the early-fall schedule jam-packed with bigscreen viewings and receptions, awards campaigning started earlier than ever this season.

But for some, “early” wasn’t early enough.

The SAG Award nominations, unveiled Dec. 20, point up the importance of getting a quick start in a competitive year.

SAG nomination ballots were mailed Nov. 27. When the noms were announced last month, December debuts such as “Atonement,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “The Great Debaters,” “The Savages” and “Sweeney Todd” found themselves earning zero noms.

The only films to get multiple nominations were four pics that opened before SAG mailed its ballots: “American Gangster,” “Into the Wild,” “Michael Clayton” and “No Country for Old Men.”

It’s possible that SAG voters just didn’t like the December titles. But it’s also possible that not enough voters saw those films.

Starting with the Feb. 29, 2004, Oscarcast, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences moved up the awards show a month earlier. That started a domino effect with all the other awards ceremonies.

Kudos strategists — studio honchos and hired consultants — always stress that they campaign just to make sure their film is seen by voters.

The SAG noms underline the clear significance of screeners.

SAG asks its nomination committee — about 2,100 voters across the country, with the names rotating each year — to sign declarations of responsibility for watermarked copies. (Studios insist on an anti-piracy code for screeners, especially for big films.)

Only about two-thirds of the voters returned their declarations, so only two-thirds were sent the late-year entries. After the noms were unveiled, many reps at the films’ respective studios were fretting that they were done in by the “two-thirds factor.”

In the four years of the accelerated awards season, studios have tried to schedule multiple fall screenings of their December launches, to make sure enough voters see them. But most studio execs reluctantly admit that such screenings are not always well attended.

So the burden falls on screeners.

Oscar voters this season received discs of high-profile films before the pics themselves opened — an idea that was unthinkable in years past.

“The Kite Runner,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Great Debaters,” “Persepolis,” “The Bucket List” and “The Orphanage” arrived anywhere from five days to a month before their bigscreen bows. “Juno,” “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” and others were sent to voters virtually the same day as the films’ releases.

Two of the last high-profile entries were Paramount Vantage’s “There Will Be Blood” (shipped Dec. 16, 10 days before its bigscreen bow) and DreamWorks-Par-Warner Bros.’ “Sweeney Todd” (which debuted Dec. 21 and arrived on disc three days later).

So the question is to see if these mailings will be reflected when Oscar noms are announced Jan. 22.

In olden times — i.e., more than five years ago, before the accelerated season — December was the preferred time to launch an awards hopeful. That gave voters plenty of time to see these films in January, before Oscar ballots went out.

In 2007, Oscar ballots were sent Dec. 26.

Screeners also are playing a crucial role because it’s such a wide-open year.

Usually, each awards announcement helps winnow down the field of contenders and gives clarity to the Oscar race.

This time each awards announcement brings more uncertainty. The Globes gave no acting noms to “Into the Wild,” but that film led nominations for SAG Awards. That’s just one of many examples of the conflicting info.

Oscar nom ballots are due Jan. 12. Often, studios’ “for your consideration” ads in Variety taper off in the last days of campaigning, but now studios are taking out ads up until the last minute.

Many voters, asked what their favorite films are, answer with some variation of the phrase “Ask me later, I’m still watching my screeners.”

Screeners have been part of the campaign DNA for 20 years, but there are more of them than ever this season.

The big questions are whether they arrived in time and whether enough voters saw them.

The biggest innovation this go-around is carbon-friendly cardboard packaging. In the wake of “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006 and Leonardo DiCaprio’s “11th Hour” docu in 2007, the studios have gone green, and many campaign strategists have adopted eco-friendly cardboard packaging to replace the plastic jewel boxes of years past.

SIDEBAR TO THE SIDEBAR?

All the piracy-phobia of four years ago has calmed down. Innovations like watermarking and signed declarations, which once caused headaches, have quietly become part of the regular routine of campaign strategists.

And where does this leave Cinea?

Early in 2004, the company made a name for itself by offering free DVD players with a precise anti-piracy system to Acad voters.

The players went out in the 2004-05 awards season.

But last year, the company acknowledged that screeners had become a much smaller part of its business and that the screener move served its purpose, putting the company on the map for Hollywood.

Since then, Cinea is very much into watermarking. The “Casino Royale” dailies, for example, had to be shipped from the U.K. to the U.S. Because of the high interest in the film, the dailies were watermarked by Cinea.

“We’ve been putting time and effort into watermarking in the consumer electronics domain,” says Cinea VP Larry Roth. So it’s been watermarking movies available for video on demand, streaming, downloading “or anyplace that a film is delivered electronically.”