Screeners Go Digital

 Illustration: Marek Haiduk

To stream or not to stream? That is the question facing awards-season consultants this year as they decide how to make sure that members of the Academy and other organizations see their movies. For years, both the studios and the indie companies have relied on DVDs -- screeners, as they are commonly known -- to catch the attention of voters who can't, or won't, make it to a movie theater.

But digital distribution is the wave of the future. Studios would love to eliminate the massive cost of producing hard copies of their films, whether on DVD or Blu-ray. Streaming is a lot cheaper than paying for the production of DVDs, along with the accompanying artwork, watermarking and delivery costs, which one strategist says can reach $400,000 a film. A further upside is that digital downloads would be harder to pirate than individual discs.

Sensing that change coming, on Sept. 21, when it issued its latest set of campaign regulations, the Academy specifically opened the door to digital screeners "via download or streaming, so long as the delivery of those motion pictures conforms to all other provisions of these regulations."

But Academy members don't need to fire up their computers just yet. Paramount is testing a pilot program by offering Rango, Super 8 and Like Crazy online to voters in the Visual Effects Society via a streaming service overseen by Deluxe Entertainment Services. (The VES crowd is considered tech-savvy.) But none of the studios is ready to start streaming movies to Academy members -- at least not this year.

Consider the downside: Streaming is a new technology with which many older Academy voters aren't familiar. It doesn't necessarily offer the highest-quality viewing experience (streamed images can look more like standard-def DVDs than high-def Blu-rays), and most problematically, as Focus and Fox Searchlight learned last year when they streamed their top contenders to every member of SAG via iTunes, there can be transmission problems like buffering that create what one consultant called "a lot of issues." SAG and iTunes hope to address those this year.

There's an added wrinkle in the new Academy regulations as well. A rule stipulates that "film companies may not send members duplicate screeners of the same motion picture." That means each Academy voter may receive a DVD, a Blu-ray or a streamed copy of a film but not more than one copy among those formats. It has become the strategists' job to determine which of the three options is most widely preferred.

During the past few years, several studios have sent postcards to Academy voters asking them to state a preference for DVD or Blu-ray screeners. According to one strategist, one survey found that roughly 3,000 voters, about half of the Academy's membership, requested Blu-ray. But because specially watermarked Blu-rays for movies still playing in theaters are expensive to produce -- running as high as $40 a unit -- one campaigner says they are "not for the faint of heart" and have received very limited distribution. (Warner Bros. sent out Blu-rays of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight to those who requested them but did not follow the same tack with Inception.)

So for the coming season, as far as Academy members are concerned, it's a DVD that will be in the mail. Three early screeners already have been sent to Academy voters: Jim Kohlberg's The Music Never Stopped, from Roadside Attractions; Chris Weitz's A Better Life, from Summit; and Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, from Sony Pictures Classics. For indie pictures, it helps getting out before the crowd. In fact, the first film sent to voters during each of the past two years resulted in acting nominations -- for Melissa Leo in Frozen River and Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom.

This year's deluge of screeners is about to begin. SPC will send out The Guard and Higher Ground on Oct. 19, and Focus will have Jane Eyre and Beginners in the mail before the end of the month.

Based on release dates and history, it appears likely that Fox Searchlight's Win Win and The Tree of Life, the Weinstein Co.'s Sarah's Key, Samuel Goldwyn Films' The Whistleblower and Fox's Rise of the Planet of the Apes won't be far behind.

Meanwhile, the Academy itself, according to sources, is exploring possible partnerships with iTunes and Deluxe, which could facilitate streaming in the future. Says one Oscar campaigner, "There's going be a natural attrition that happens as more and more people get savvy." But another emphasizes: "I don't see that day arriving anytime soon. It's like when DVDs replaced VHS -- it's going to take a while."

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