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.

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.



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."


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."