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

The new rules


On September 21, the Academy issued a set of new "Regulations Concerning the Promotion of Films Eligible for the 84th Academy Awards," which largely focused on clarifying existing -- and adding new -- rules about how studios may interact with Academy voters when it comes to screeners. Going forward, a single copy of any film may be provided to Academy voters and "may carry a list of 'for your consideration' credits" as long as it does not include:

  • "any additional print or moving image material, such as information about the making of the movie"
  • "chapter stop headings in the menu [with] captions"
  • "tag lines, advertising, or promotional copy" (including and especially "quotes or comments by Academy members")
  • "elaborate or promotional packing" (packaging must "be limited to simple sleeves or boxes"
  • "references or links to a website that promotes" the film if that website contains anything more than "the same type of basic screening information and synopses that would be allowed in direct mailings" (links to websites that include "photographic, audio, video, graphical, and other multimedia elements" are strictly forbidden)

Most notably, the Academy is now allowing, for the first time in its history, for screeners to be digitally transmitted from studios to Academy voters "via download or streaming, so long as the delivery of those motion pictures conforms to all other provisions of these Regulations."

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Many of the aforementioned rules seem driven by a goal of minimizing the advantage of big studios with deep pockets over little studios without them. For instance, anyone can stream a film for relatively little cost. Also, the Academy's attempt to shield Academy voters from undue influence by insisting upon unadorned films in simple packaging means that big studios that are already mass-producing DVDs or Blu-Rays of their films for commercial sale will have to commission simple ones that will look just like those dispensed by small studios when they arrive in voters' mailboxes.

In conversations with nearly a dozen people who make their living strategizing about awards, it was emphasized to me that a line in the new Regulations is particularly important: "Film companies may not send members duplicate screeners of the same motion picture." That means that each Academy voter may receive either a DVD, a Blu-Ray, or a streamed copy of a film, but not more than one of that group. It therefore has become the strategists' job to determine which of the three options is most widely preferred today, and how they can begin to phase out the more expensive hard copies in favor of the incredibly inexpensive streaming without losing older voters, who tend to be less familiar with new technology, in the process. It's not an easy calculation, considering that Academy voters range from centenarians to Dakota Fanning.

Over the last few years, before streaming was introduced into the equation, several studios sent out a postcard to Academy voters asking them to state whether they would prefer to continue to receive DVD screeners or, "if available," Blu-Ray screeners instead. One strategist told me that the survey yielded interesting and somewhat surprising results: though it was suspected that a large number of Academy voters still haven't purchased Blu-Ray players, roughly 3,000 Academy voters, or just under half of the entire membership, indicated that they wanted Blu-Rays. Another strategist, however, referred to mailings of this sort as "bounce-back cards" that are sent less because of a desire to gather the requested information than to find out if the addressee has moved -- or, more morbidly, died -- in the last year.

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Regardless of each studio's motivation for asking Academy voters to state their preference, the fact of the matter is that very few of them have gotten into the business of Blu-Ray screeners. Warner Brothers sent them to those who asked when it was promoting The Dark Knight (2008) but then did not do so again for Inception (2010). Focus Features, a smaller operation, has apparently sent them on-demand, as well, but rarely makes large-scale films that necessitate them. But, for reasons of cost and practicality, most studios stick to DVDs. According to one strategist, the cost of creating a single Blu-Ray disc of a film that is still in theaters, which would consequently require a special watermark to tie it back to each Academy voter in order to discourage piracy, can run as high as $40 -- "not for the faint of heart." Another strategist emphasized, "The only people who would even consider sending Blu Rays are those whose films are already commercially available [and therefore do not require watermarking]; otherwise it's cost-prohibitive." And even they seem to be dissuaded by the cost and hassle of commissioning special, stripped-down Blu-Rays that meet the Academy's rules. Ironically, virtually every other awards group will receive those films on high-definition Blu-Ray discs, but Academy voters will only see them on standard-definition DVDs.

Which brings us to streaming. There are upsides to streaming over mailing DVDs or Blu-Rays for studios big (it's harder to pirate) and small (it's a lot cheaper than paying for the production of units, artwork, mailing, watermarking, stamping, letters, envelope, delivery trucks, etc., which one strategist says can cost $400,000 per film), but there are also downsides. For one, it is new technology with which many Academy voters are still unfamiliar (and, considering that some of them -- primarily older voters -- still call strategists trying to understand why their Blu-Ray disc isn't playing on their DVD player, it may be a while before that changes). Additionally, it doesn't offer an especially high-quality viewing experience (streamed images do not look high-def, like Blu-Rays, but rather standard-def, like DVDs). And, perhaps most problematically, issues have been known to arise during transmission (buffering problems, etc.), as Focus Features and Fox Searchlight learned last year when they streamed their top contenders for every member of SAG via iTunes and "there were a lot of issues." (SAG and iTunes are apparently working closely together to prevent similar problems from arising again, and several more studios say that they are confident enough that they will be resolved -- and anxious enough to reach SAG voters -- that they will participate for the first time this year.)

Paramount, meanwhile, recently announced a "pilot program" through which they will stream their awards contenders to the Visual Effects Society. The arrangement between the studio and the guild dictates that each VES member will receive both a DVD and a code to access streaming, largely because the studio would like to monitor how many VES members -- who are probably as tech-savvy as any guild's -- log-in and take advantage of the additional option.

But no studio seemed confident that they would offer streaming to Academy voters this year. One attributed this to the fact that "there is still too large a population [of Academy voters] that wouldn't know how to use it" to make it worth the effort, while another admitted that they themselves are "not yet ready with the technology to do the streaming... in our office, we're not dealing with it at all."