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For Your Consideration: The Evolving Role of Screeners in the Awards Race (Analysis)

Awards strategists share the arguments for and against delivering movies to voters via DVD, Blu-ray and streaming.

Oscar Ballot

An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in the Oct. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

For filmmakers, whose primary goal is usually to make art, the ideal way for a movie to be seen is on the big screen. But for awards strategists, whose primary job is to deliver nominations and wins from the Academy, critics, guilds, other awards-dispensing organizations, any way of reaching voters -- some of whom live far from the advance screening hubs of Los Angeles and New York and/or are too busy or frail to get to many screenings -- will do.

A bit of history

Studios have been offering voters an alternative method of seeing their films -- namely, "screeners" -- since the late 1980s, when strategic awards "campaigns" first became commonplace. These copies of their films -- which were first mailed to voters on VHS, and then DVD, and now sometimes even Blu-Ray -- can cost studios hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce and distribute -- sometimes even millions, depending on how many voting bodies they wish to send them to. (There are roughly 6,500 members of the Academy and 98,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild, to cite but two of them.) But to those who see great prestige and profit in the reflection of awards statuettes -- especially the most coveted of all, the Oscar -- it is regarded as money well spent.

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Indeed, screeners have helped to level the playing field, in the sense that voters no longer have any excuse for why they can't see -- and therefore "consider" -- a film for awards. Weather, work, and whatever else might once have precluded them from making a screening are now non-issues, since they can now pop a film into an entertainment console anywhere and anytime that's convenient for them. And while some voters still see and vote for only the most hyped films each year -- or, worse yet, don't see them and/or invite relatives or assistants to fill out their ballots -- most take advantage of the convenience and wind up seeing and rewarding a lot of little movies that they otherwise might not have.

Many industry analysts believe that acting Oscars would never have been awarded to Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful (1998), Hilary Swank for Boys Don't Cry (1999), Marcia Gay Harden for Pollock (2000) or Halle Berry for Monster's Ball (2001) had voters not seen them on screeners. Moreover, they argue, the shocking best picture win of Crash over Brokeback Mountain (both 2005) is probably directly attributable to the fact that Lionsgate took the then-unprecedented, "really, really expensive" step -- later copied by Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Black Swan (2010) en route to best picture nods of their own -- of sending a screener to every single member of SAG, leading to a best ensemble win there and a surge of familiarity and popularity among actors (who represent the largest branch of the Academy) right before Oscar voting closed.

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In more recent years, however, two conflicting pressures have arisen: there is more competition than ever before to get films seen by voters, but there is also more concern than ever before about protecting those films from being leaked before their commercial releases to the general public. In the age of the Internet, film "piracy" -- as in, the illegal replication and distribution of films -- has become a major problem, and one that can cost a studio massive amounts of money at the box-office. Since the sources of at least a few such leaks have been identified as awards voters who either deliberately or carelessly allowed their screeners to get into the wrong hands, studios have been forced to seek alternative and safer ways of getting their films into the right hands. That -- as well as a desire on the part of the Academy to embrace modern technology and promote green-awareness -- led to an announcement last month that has literally changed the rules of the game.