Cinea pulls plug on screener player

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The Oscar race already has claimed its first casualty: the Cinea S-View.

The DVD player custom-made for tens of thousands of Oscar voters since 2004 has been quietly phased out by its maker, Cinea, a division of Dolby Laboratories. A piracy-busting fixture of the screener program, the S-View worked with DVDs encrypted so that the discs only could play on a machine registered to each particular voter.

A spokesman for Cinea characterized the reason for its pullout from the screener scene as a shift in resources that won't take it out of the copyright-protection game.

"Cinea remains committed to anti-piracy, changing focus from the S-View platform to support of its watermarking technology, Running Marks," he said. "This business decision had nothing to do with lack of studio support."

However, sources indicated that Cinea is pulling the plug on the device because of millions of dollars in losses that would have mounted heading into 2008. What little backing the experimental technology mustered from the major studios in recent years had largely vanished as they got comfortable with the standard practice of watermarking DVDs.

In 2005, Cinea scored a coup when Walt Disney Studios agreed to use Cinea, distributing encrypted discs to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Cinea spent $5 million that year alone distributing machines to the members in the U.S. and U.K., where other studios and distributors tried the technology.

Since then, the studios have largely begged off from using Cinea to reach the massive AMPAS base. Last year, encrypted discs were distributed only to the smaller BAFTA organization from a handful of studios including 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.

Cinea also was facing increasing costs given its pledge to distribute machines to new members of the guilds it was servicing.

In addition, voters were showing no signs of warming up to the SV-300, the machine operating the S-View software that scored few points for being user-friendly in its brief run. Its user base complained of the impracticality of having to lug the machine around on vacation during the holiday season, the height of the screening period.

The decision is just the latest move to roil the screener program. Last month, the DGA said it would not be sending out screeners to its 13,400 members.

Cinea had all the makings of a breakthrough when it was introduced in 2004 after a year of internecine Hollywood battles over issuing screeners vulnerable to copyright infringement. But the technology stumbled out of the gate when it was deployed too late to be a part of that season's screeners.

Cinea also drew a cloud of suspicion in 2006 when the omission of the Universal Pictures drama "Munich" from that year's Orange British Academy Film Awards was blamed on a technical glitch that prevented screeners of that film from being viewed by BAFTA members.

Industry insiders also indicated that while piracy remains a huge concern, Oscar screeners are not considered a primary contributor to the problem given other types of theft. On the flip side, studios were worried that Cinea had become a hurdle in the way of voters sampling their films. Many Academy members never registered the machines they were given.

But Cinea will continue to stay active with the S-View software that powered the SV-300 on other fronts combating piracy, including software that encrypts dailies and rough cuts. In addition, it is getting more traction with Running Marks, a forensic watermarking technology that assigns serial numbers to each individual video stream.

Thomas K. Arnold contributed to this report.
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