Oscar Screeners: Long Tolerated, But Only Official After Next Week

Crash SAG
Courtesy of Lionsgate

Oscar ballots have all been safely delivered to PricewaterhouseCoopers, but the schmoozing and subtle campaigning will still be in high gear this weekend, thanks to the Golden Globes, AFI Awards, BAFTA/LA tea, Q&A’s and studio parties. But all this drum-beating only works if the voters have seen the film.

Screeners have been a key factor since the late 1980s and as late as the Jan. 3 weekend, some Acad members admitted they needed to catch up on a slew of films. The logical method: screeners, of course.

But this year marks a turning point for the discs as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences finally embraced them. The organization annually urges members to see films on the bigscreen, where they were meant to be seen. But last May, the org announced that the general membership will, for the first time, be voting in five categories: foreign-language film, documentary feature, documentary short, animated short and live-action short. And to make them accessible to all 6,000 voters, the Academy will send out DVD screeners in those races. In previous years, the screeners were sent out by the distributors, and the Academy generally stayed out of it. But times are changing and once the Oscar noms are unveiled Jan. 16, we will see the Academy’s screener moves.

So DVDs are now official. The next step is undoubtedly streaming. It’s already begun with a few film contenders. On Jan. 17, one day after Oscar nominations are announced, Netflix will begin streaming “The Square,” the documentary it acquired as part of its strategy to build original programming for its 40 million viewers. As a business strategy, it’s a smart move since the film is a hot-button look at the protests in Egypt for the past few years. As awards strategy, it’s a gamble, but I suspect a safe one. The film is short-listed in the feature docu category and stands a good chance of being nominated. If it is indeed nominated, the Acad will send out DVDs, so the Netflix option won’t be a necessity — but it can’t hurt to give a voter multiple ways of viewing it.

However, the current SAG Awards are the best example of the multiple viewing options. SAG Awards voting continues through Jan. 17 and the studios have made virtually every film  available to the voters, either via disc or streaming.

It’s the post-“Crash” effect. Lionsgate made a bold move by sending screeners of the 2005 film to the entire membership of SAG. Piracy remains a concern for studios, but wasn’t a factor for “Crash,” which was already available on DVD. When Paul Haggis’ film became the surprise winner at the SAG Awards, then won the best-picture Oscar, studios saw it as an omen; any hesitation about screeners flew out the window.

The five contenders in the all-important film ensemble — “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “August: Osage County,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” — are available on DVD to the 100,000 eligible SAG-AFTRA  voters, as are “Blue Jasmine” and “Captain Phillips.” Voters have two other options: watching films available on VOD and digital platforms or on studio-hosted sites. Available on VOD and digitally are “12 Years,” “Osage,” “Butler,” “Enough Said” and “Philomena.” On the studio sites are “Gravity,” “Nebraska,” “Osage,” “Butler” and “Philomena.”

Before “Crash,” there were various options: Seeing a film at a studio screening, using a membership card to gain admittance at a multiplex (“Your card will admit you and a guest”) or even (gasp!) paying for it. Those are still possible, but screeners, streaming and studio sites will next week become officially sanctioned.

For years, studio strategists have repeated the mantra, “I just want the voters to SEE our film.” Well, this is the year when the options increased exponentially, but it’s safe to assume that even more digital changes will be happening in the next few years.