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After Oscar Piracy, Studios Step Up Push for Digital Screeners

Hollywood and Oscar have many ongoing issues aside from diversity, and high on that list is piracy. Earlier this month, the pirate-tracking firm Excipio said that all eight best-picture contenders are available on file-sharing sites, up 59% from last year.

The film industry has been talking with vendors of streaming/digital screening for years, but wanted guarantees before they embraced a new system. However, the piracy this year is a reminder that the DVD process has serious vulnerabilities, so many film execs expect streaming to become a major factor in 2016-17 Oscar campaigns.

This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is said to be conducting a beta test, allowing overseas voters to digitally view entries in five categories: the three shorts, docu feature and foreign-language. The Academy would not comment.

Systems are already in place for voting on Emmys and most showbiz guilds. But the DVD-to-digital shift has been delayed in terms of Oscar because there are higher stakes in terms of box office.

The biggest fears are tech glitches and piracy. In addition, many filmmakers balk. Over the years, they have learned to live with the idea that their bigscreen work can be viewed at home. But they dislike the idea of digital, because that means some voters will be watching on a tablet or iPhone — not the best way to judge a film or such key elements as cinematography, production design and sound, for example.

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One studio rep described the ongoing discussions as “baby steps” toward digital, but adds, “We’re committed to digital screeners, because it fights piracy and is cost-efficient. It’s just a matter of time.” Apparently the time is now. Most strategists contacted by Variety predict that small indies will lead the way, because they have less money at stake and are less cautious.

Companies like Prime Focus Technologies and Deluxe say their systems are much safer and more reliable than DVDs, factors that have gained importance after the DVD’s of “Hateful Eight” and “The Revenant” were hacked and posted in December shortly before the films debuted at the box-office. This month’s Excipio statistics add even more urgency.

Hollywood execs and voters also were rattled this season by a tech glitch during SAG Awards balloting, meaning voters were unable to watch certain films for 48 hours. (The glitch was on a studio-selected vendor site.) Studio people worry about even one lost vote, so they’re wary about experimenting with a new system on their $100 million-plus movie investment.

Awards planners predict the use of various vendors, as is the case for DVDs. But execs worry about confusion (or voting abstinence) if studios use different systems and log-ons. Execs at the Motion Picture Assn. of America are said to be working with an outside vendor for an app to give access to films from various studios and indies with one sign-in. A spokesperson was unavailable for comment.

At strategy meetings, studio execs and awards consultants frequently ask digital reps, “Can we be 100% certain that digital screeners are safe from pirates?” When they’re told it’s 99% safe, they have resisted — ignoring the fact that DVDs are far less certain.

Patrick Macdonald-King of Prime Focus Technologies says the key is to have multiple levels of security. With PFT, an Oscar voter would get two separate emails: One with a user name, one with a password. The voter then logs in with both, and waits for a text message on his or her cell phone with a code; once the voter enters that number, he or she can view all the films in the system. PFT can track who’s watching it — and make the film available for a limited window.

When Prime Focus receives a film, the title can be put up on a server almost instantaneously, as opposed to the three-to-six weeks needed for DVD production, watermarking and messenger delivery. (Studios often schedule their biggest titles for the fourth quarter, and delivery date is a factor with awards voting, so the reduction in time is a serious consideration.) Prime Focus would create a watermark that’s unique for each viewer and a studio has the option of whether that watermark is invisible or not.

Some film reps are concerned that not all Academy voters have cell phones to receive text notification. But in fact, the Acad used a similar system of text alerts when it began electronic voting, starting with the films of 2012. By now, the vast majority uses electronic voting, says Oscar accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, though they won’t give out specific numbers.

Macdonald-King wouldn’t estimate an average cost of preparing a digital screener, except to say it’s a fraction of DVD costs. Veteran campaigners say the DVD mailings can reach $300,000-$600,000, thanks to rush charges on production and delivery if a film is mailed to multiple guilds.

There are now four or five companies that are go-to sites for DVD manufacturing, and among the companies working on digital delivery are PFT, Deluxe and Vision.

Digital voting is widely used for Emmys, but piracy is less of a concern since every eligible episode has already aired. (However, it is a concern for some series like “Game of Thrones,” where plot secrecy is important.)

Studio reps wouldn’t talk on the record but confirmed that there is a shudder in the room when digital companies ask them, “Do you want a voter to watch on more than four devices?” In theory, a contender could limit the number of devices and eliminate tiny screens like smart phones, but Hollywood execs realize that when one studio offers a screener on four or more platforms, it’s just a matter of time before the others follow.

One studio exec sheepishly admitted a more personal reason for sticking with the status quo. “If I send out a DVD to all the Academy members, I can tell the filmmakers that it’s in the hands of 6,000 voters and we can assume everybody will watch. But with digital screeners, you can tally the exact number of viewers. And if only 35 people have watched their film, it looks like I’m not doing my job.”

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