Hollywood Inequality Persists as Studios Refuse to Offer Digital Screeners (Guest Column)

Jill Pantozzi
Courtesy Savannah Lauren

It seems like every year there’s a new plea for equality and better treatment in Hollywood. Why? The answer is simple: Things aren’t equal, and they haven’t been for a very, very long time. From who gets hired as director on a blockbuster (sometimes with no feature work on their resume) to the person being overlooked for a promotion because they’re only seen as a sexual object, and an actor happily accepting whitewashed roles, to say the entertainment industry needs an overhaul would be an understatement.

A lot of this is ingrained, of course, and that’s why people have to make so much noise. Nothing changes with silence. Over the last ten years or so, the way social media has become — for better or worse — part of how we hear about things means someone who isn’t a big name can make big waves by being brave enough to speak out, even in the smallest of ways. It may sound ridiculous to some that a hashtag could become a movement, but it can get the ball rolling. Getting people to sit up and listen has never been more accessible, and when you consider the longevity of the Hollywood machine, the last few years of progress could almost be considered a miracle. Studios are waking up and hiring diversity and inclusion officers, companies and individuals alike are giving public responses (occasionally) when they screw up instead of trying to keep things hush-hush, and brands are putting money toward initiatives specifically geared toward helping to even the playing field. But no system is perfect and a lot still slips through the cracks.

For instance, the accessibility of screeners.

If you’re in one of the entertainment unions, you’re likely used to getting streaming links and DVDs around awards season, but they’re something journalists typically have access to year round for their coverage. They’re more often used for reviewing television series because, of course, everyone wants to see films at an in-theater screening. But that changed with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. At this point, we all know far too well the adaptations everyone has had to make because of it — some simply difficult, others traumatic and life changing — but after realizing their film slates were in jeopardy, studios shifted to streaming their movies for consumers and, for journalists, giving access to digital movie screeners.

Now that some are (falsely) assuming it’s fine to “go back to normal,” those screeners that were made available so quickly and easily have somehow started to disappear. Due to pandemic accommodations, countless journalists have had access to something they never would have had otherwise. And we don’t want it to end.

The screening links started drying up over the last month or so, with studios and publicists explaining, “It’s our strong desire that critics see the film in theaters,” “On this one we’re hoping critics can view it on the largest screen possible,” “We’re screening this one in theaters only.” Those were the responses that came from PR professionals, small and large studios, outsourced or direct, when we asked for what has become the norm. For those who were comfortable going to in-person screenings it was fine, but for others it was a red flag. Surely “on this one” was soon to become “all of them” and we didn’t want to retrogress, for a number of reasons.

As an editor, safety of my staff is one of my top concerns. If they’re not comfortable with something, I’m not comfortable with it. But beyond the current and very legitimate health concerns, digital screeners open up access to a much wider array of writers I could use for a given project. In-person events –screenings, interviews and junkets, special previews — almost always take place in major metropolitan areas and living in those areas is prohibitive for many. It feels similar to how companies are starting to refuse remote employees when people were doing the job that way for a year and a half. They’re working against those diversity and inclusion sentiments they love to trot out, and the same thing goes for screener access. People with disabilities, those from marginalized communities, individuals who have childcare concerns — there are any number of reasons a digital screener would be a boon for a critic (pausing would be heaven-sent, but please don’t forget captions at all screenings). Most will still choose to view the film in a theater and frankly, making arrangements for a few others who would benefit from a digital screener takes almost nothing to provide.

Believe me, I would prefer to see a film in a theater setting too, but no one who needs this accommodation is going to ding your project on sound or cinematography because they watched it in their living room (Regular viewers are going to be watching it that way for years to come!). Personally, as someone with a disability and who uses a motorized scooter to get around, screening rooms often do not have theater seats removed to allow space for a wheelchair. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been made to (unsafely) sit in an aisle or too close to the screen. And let me tell you, if anything was going to affect my feeling on a film outside of the actual content, feeling uncomfortable for the duration and coming away with a neck ache would be it. As an editor, I rarely review films these days but I still know watching them for context of my writers’ work is an advantage to everyone.

Retaining digital screeners for good is one of the easiest ways around to deal with an accessibility hurdle, and believe me, I’ve dealt with a lot of hurdles. So, do you truly want “everyone” to be included in this industry or just the privileged ones?

Jill Pantozzi is an editor, writer, and host. Currently, she’s the Deputy Editor of io9 at Gizmodo and has been a longtime ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.