The Screener Game: Why You Got the Ones You Got When You Got Them

THR's awards analyst dissects the part of Oscar campaigning that no filmmaker likes but every studio demands in order to give their films a fighting chance

A version of this article appeared in the December Awards Playbook edition of The Hollywood Reporter.

Everyone pays lip service to the idea that movies should be seen on the big screen. But during awards season, that ideal goes out the window. After all, who has the time to see everything on the big screen? Not many academy members, who increasingly prefer to consume films in their living rooms, surrounded by friends and family, especially over the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. (An academy official told me this month that attendance at official academy screenings has been way down this year, as has been true for the past few years, almost certainly because voters prefer to watch films at their leisure rather than schlep out on a weekend to the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills or the Lighthouse International Theatre in New York.)

So since the '80s, every distributor worth its salt has sent "screeners" — originally in the form of VHS tapes, then DVDs and now, in some cases, Blu-rays — to members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences as a way of ensuring that those 6,000 or so individuals watch, or at least have no excuse for not watching, the Oscar hopefuls. Without screeners, it's doubtful that Oscars would have been awarded to Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful, Hilary Swank for Boys Don't Cry, Marcia Gay Harden for Pollock or Halle Berry for Monster's Ball, or that 2005's Crash and 2009's The Hurt Locker would have become best picture winners.

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Last year, A Most Violent Year writer-director J.C. Chandor, who then was promoting All Is Lost, told me that he asked Lost's distributor if it could skip sending screeners altogether to compel Oscar voters to see his survival-at-sea tale on the big screen. The response? "Yeah, if you want zero nominations." Chandor relented because, like most filmmakers, the only thing more important to him than having his work seen in a theater is having his film simply seen.

Screeners are a product of the same mentality that leads distributors to organize cocktail parties, dinners and post-screening Q&As for their films: Do whatever is necessary and within the academy's rules to get voters to watch a film, because without being seen, a film cannot be nominated. But can being viewed at home — and therefore on a screen smaller than one in a screening room, often considerably so — actually change the quality of the experience of watching a movie? There's no scientific way of quantifying an answer, but, based on my conversations with voters over the years, the answer is very clear: Yes.

How could it not? Films such as Christopher Nolan's space opera Interstellar, Angelina Jolie's war pic Unbroken, Ridley Scott's biblical retelling Exodus: Gods and Kings and Peter Jackson's sprawling The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies — spectacles and epics, if you will — demand to be seen on a big screen. This isn't necessarily so for films revolving around performances rather than effects: Think Richard Linklater's Boyhood, Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman, Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game, James Marsh's The Theory of Everything and Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher.

If your film falls into that second category, how do you increase the odds that it at least will get seen on a smaller screen?

One is to get your screener to voters early in the fall, before they are inundated with higher-profile titles. This method has borne fruit for early-bird indies such as Frozen River (2008), Animal Kingdom (2010) and A Better Life (2011), all of which scored acting noms. And it was employed this year for Snowpiercer — in the hope of landing a best supporting actress nom for Tilda Swinton, distributor Radius-TWC sent out the season's first screener way back in August, weeks before any others showed up, which led to the film being watched by quite a few people who otherwise might have skipped it. Screeners for Love Is Strange, Magic in the Moonlight, Chef, Noah, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Belle and Calvary also all arrived before November.

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Another approach is to time the arrival of your screener to the nominations announcements of other high-profile awards groups with whom you expect to do well. The Weinstein Co., for instance, always arranges for screeners of its highest-profile contenders to arrive the same week that SAG and Globe noms are announced, assuming that their films will reap major noms that will make voters want to check them out right away. Similarly, Universal's screeners of Unbroken arrived on the day that the Critics' Choice noms were announced.

Yet another option is to hold on to your screener as long as possible, gambling that withholding it — even after the film has become a hot topic of discussion via other noms, critics' top 10 lists and the like — will motivate stragglers to go to a screening or, alternatively, to check out the screener the moment it arrives. That approach has been given credit for propelling The Hurt Locker to its unlikely best picture Oscar win. It is apparently being employed this year by the teams behind Fox Searchlight's Birdman and Wild — on which Cynthia Swartz, the awards strategist who crafted the game plan for Hurt Locker, is consulting. Those films' screeners reached voters the week before Christmas.

Of course, some screeners' late arrivals this year can be chalked up to extenuating circumstances. It took a while for Fox to arrive at a master of Gone Girl that the studio and director David Fincher were happy with. Once they did, the mailing house that they use to produce and package screeners was backed up with other titles, causing them to roll theirs out to the academy in waves, starting in late November and continuing through the present. That also delayed the start of production of screeners of Exodus: Gods and Kings, but the studio still is committed to getting them out.

Paramount is running a little late with Selma because the film wasn't locked until mid-November (it will go out, along with The Gambler, on Dec. 18) as well as with Interstellar because the studio and Nolan decided to send it out on Blu-ray — a first for Paramount — and those take longer to produce (they will go out Dec. 29, the day Oscar nomination voting begins).

Screeners for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies were sent out by Warner Bros. just as the movie was debuting theatrically Dec. 17. Presumably, they didn't go out earlier because the movie is expected to be a big ticket-seller for the studio and earlier screeners might have led to the possibility of financially devastating piracy. Another Warners title, Inherent Vice, opened in limited release Dec. 12, just before its screeners went out. I suspect writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson wanted there to be at least a small window during which the film could be seen only on a big screen.

One awards strategist tells THR, "If you're sending your screeners out after Christmas, you're dead in the water." That remains to be seen. In the meantime, academy members can rest assured that all the big titles will show up, sooner or later — which means there will be no excuses for not giving proper "consideration" to every contender!

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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