Screener scramble tests Tinseltown’s fortitude

Plethora of pics and 'secret screeners' battle for attention in kudos crunch time

This is the moment when the floodgates open and screeners come pouring into homes and offices of Academy and guild voters — and when many voters get the crazies. And it’s all going to be worse this year because of the advent of “secret screeners” (more on that later).

Studios resent the cost of screeners and the risks of piracy. Voters are distressed by the sheer quantity, not to mention the upfront warnings (more dire each year) threatening imprisonment if not torture if screeners fall into alien hands.

And filmmakers, a paranoid lot at best, cringe at the thought of their epics being screened by grumpy geriatrics huddled in front of their TV sets or handheld devices. They want their work displayed on bigscreens in big theaters before admiring throngs.

So here’s the irony: While screeners have become all the more central to the process because of quantity and competition, they also have become marginally irrelevant. That’s why distributors of such technically ambitious epics as “Life of Pi,” “The Hobbit,” “Django Unchained” or “Les Miserables” hint to voters that there won’t be any screeners — but furtively plan to distribute them anyway as “secret screeners” at the 11th hour.

It’s all a nasty business, but it’s part of decision time — the moment of truth when voters (I’ve been an Academy voter for many years) actually have to make up our churlish minds and decide on winners.

Apart from screeners, other assorted props are provided. Some studios distribute screenplays for perusal; it’s reassuring to discover that there actually was a script on “The Master” and that Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t make it up as he went along. DreamWorks sent out copies of books about Abraham Lincoln, as though to remind voters that the Steven Spielberg “Lincoln” is actually about a president, not an amendment.

The process also involves major media assaults, Q&As, lunches and receptions. In kudo campaigns, as in politics, the costs keep rising each year and the payoff becomes ever more enticing.

While old-fashioned screenings provide the best format, the screening schedule this year seemed even more chaotic than usual. I’ve attended screenings that were completely empty and others that were massively overbooked. It’s a hazardous road for voters.

That’s why I still find screeners so valuable despite the annual chorus of criticism. On one level they provide an opportunity to discover quality films that were previously overlooked — “The Impossible,” “End of Watch” or “The Sessions,” in my case. They also offer a chance to see films that I’d purposely avoided because critics groups had oversold them (“Amour”) or because they were too long to sit through in a theater (“Cloud Atlas”).

Then there are always those performances you want to revisit, such as Anthony Hopkins in “Hitchcock,” Rachel Weisz in “Deep Blue Sea” or the daring feat of Hugh Jackman in “Les Miserables.”

Sifting through possible choices is at once discomfiting and stimulating. So much great work is ignored at kudos time because it doesn’t fit into a comfy category. There’s no room for a deliciously dopey comedy like “Pitch Perfect” and no hole for the dean of dick jokes, Judd Apatow.

And a James Bond picture will never be declared best picture, especially since everyone in the world seems to be lining up to see the latest one (and deservedly so).

I suppose that’s approbation enough.

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