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OCT
20
3 YEARS

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

This year

Three screeners should have already arrived in the mailboxes of every Academy voter: Jim Kohlberg's The Music Never Stopped (courtesy of Roadside Attractions), Chris Weitz's A Better Life (courtesy of Summit Entertainment), and Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter (courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics). Strategists say that it is in the interest of indie films released early in the year, like these three, to be sent out early because it offers them their only shot at grabbing the attention of voters before they are inundated with screeners of higher-profile films. And, indeed, it is an approach that has been shown to work: the first film sent to voters in two of the last three years -- Frozen River (2008) and Animal Kingdom (2010), both courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics -- wound up receiving an acting nod.

Most screeners, however, are mailed shortly before Thanksgiving, since that is when strategists know that voters will be home with their families and have time to watch them. (It is also an ideal time to send them to journalists, since it is right before most critics groups gather for awards voting.)

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The rest come at the bitter end of the year, for reasons of strategy (to reduce the risk of a film being pirated before its commercial release; encourage voters to see a film in a theater; and/or have a film be among the last in voters' minds prior to voting) and/or necessity (films that are released late in the year often aren't finished much before then, and screeners obviously can't be produced or mailed until they are).

This year's deluge of screeners is about to begin. I'm told that Sony Pictures Classics will be sending out The Guard and Higher Ground on Wednesday, and that Focus Features will put Jane Eyre and Beginners in the mail before the end of the month. Based on release dates and past history, it seems likely to me that Fox Searchlight's Win Win and The Tree of Life, The Weinstein Company's Sarah's Key, Samuel Goldwyn Films' The Whistleblower and 20th Century Fox's Rise of the Planet of the Apes won't be far behind.

The future

Studios would love to eliminate the massive cost of having to produce hard-copies of their films to send to awards voters, but will streaming completely replace DVDs or Blu-Rays anytime soon? Say, within the next five years? The overwhelming consensus among awards strategists is that it will not -- unless the Academy updates its rules again and demands that all studios make the transition at the same time. Understandably, no studio wants to be the first to make that transition, because doing so would inherently limit the audience of its films to some extent, since not all voters presently have the tools or know-how to stream films, and many like -- and have come to expect -- having hard copies.

I’m told that the Academy is, in fact, exploring a partnership with iTunes (which, as previously mentioned, is handing streaming for SAG) and the Deluxe Entertainment Services Company (which is handling streaming for the Visual Effects Society), and that something of this nature is actually quite possible in the not too distant future. One strategist granted, "There's gonna be a natural attrition that happens as more and more people get savvy," but another emphasized, "I don't see that day arriving anytime soon. It's like when DVDs replaced VHS -- it's gonna take a while."