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It’s Time for Oscar to Embrace Digital Screeners

It’s only a matter of time before Oscar voters see contenders via streaming screeners — but the question is how soon. It could happen by the end of this year, in time for the 2016 awards season, but the change seems more likely to happen a few years down the road.

However, there’s already a process in place, though it’s a bit cumbersome: Most of the nominees were available to this year’s SAG Awards voters digitally, including the big winners of Jan. 25: “Birdman,” “Boyhood” and “The Theory of Everything” (via iTunes downloads), plus “Still Alice” and “Whiplash” (streaming on studio-hosted sites). WGA voters also received password-protected links.

The learning curve on streaming will be steep, as studios, guilds and voters need to rethink a procedure that’s been used for years. Every guild and awards-voting organization has its own rules of what’s allowed in terms of offering films, a situation even more confusing due to rapidly changing technology. (SAG’s iTunes downloads are likely a relic of a few years ago when streaming was less speedy.)

Filmmakers are also concerned about aesthetics. With streaming, studios fear that viewers might choose to watch films on smartphones or tablets — not the best way to judge cinematography or sound, for example.

It can cost up to $800,000 and take three to six weeks to manufacture, watermark and ship discs. This lag time was the reason guild voters didn’t get screeners of “Selma”; a final print was delivered Nov. 26, so screeners were not available until Dec. 18. The “Selma” problem would have been solved with streaming: It takes only a few days to two weeks to encode and upload a title, at a fraction of the cost. And streaming can be much safer in terms of piracy.

DVDs will continue to be around for years, since even when streaming finally hits AMPAS, it will take a while for tech-challenged voters to embrace password-protected streaming. But with most people getting the hang of watching Netflix and Amazon on larger-screen smart TVs or via Blu-ray players, Roku, Chromecast or Apple TV, it seems the time has finally arrived when online viewing is feasible for the majority of viewers.

Even easier than using iTunes would be going through an app like Netflix that would allow majors and indies to upload their films onto the same platform, though getting them to all agree on a system doesn’t seem simple.

Logistical advantages are clear, but there’s a philosophical question: Do film folks want Oscar to become even more of a smallscreen experience?

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