For the last few years, the movie industry’s battles with Internet pirates offered an entertaining diversion during Oscar season. Their problem: they need to “leak” their films to Academy members for consideration, but don’t want those official leaks to fall into the hands of pirates. In 2003, the MPAA banned all screeners, causing a massive uproar from directors, actors, critics and indie studios. The plan was eventually scrapped in December 2003, but they stepped up their legal efforts, using encoded watermarks to bust 70-year-old character actor Carmine Caridi and a “piracy ring” of three employees of a post-production shop for distributing screeners.
Since then, they’ve tried other approaches, from sophisticated watermarks to shipping out custom DRM-laden DVD players. In 2004, a company named Cinea spent $5 million distributing custom DVD players to Academy and BAFTA members with very mixed results. Lately, it seems the new strategy is to stop trying. Maybe the industry is finally realizing that the best way to get recognized is for people to see your movie, despite the risk of piracy. For example, Munich was very likely snubbed for a British Oscar nomination in 2005 because the screeners were late and defective. The best case study is Lionsgate’s promotion of Crash vs Disney’s Cinea-encrypted screeners:
In a way, Lionsgate’s strategy was the opposite of Disney’s. While the indie sent its film to as many voters as possible, upping the odds copies could be pirated, the Mouse House focused on minimizing piracy, with the result that at least 26% of Oscar voters didn’t watch its screeners.
The outcome: Crash shocked the world by winning Best Picture over the favored Brokeback Mountain, while Disney only got Best Makeup for The Chronicles of Narnia.
After the MPAA decided to ban all screeners in 2003, I started tracking the distribution of Oscar screeners online to see how effective their ban was. I found that screeners for all but one of the 22 nominated films were leaked. I followed up the following year, but took a break last year. So, how did they fare this year?
I researched every nominated film, excluding the documentary and foreign film categories. Out of those 34 films:
- Academy members received screeners for 30 out of 34. (Everything except Click, Monster House, Poseidon, and Black Dahlia.)
- 31 out of 34 films were released online in some form, including camcorder footage. (Everything except Letters from Iwo Jima, Notes on a Scandal, and Venus.)
- 24 screeners were leaked online. (In several cases, they were leaked months before Academy screeners were mailed.)
- The average length of time between a film’s USA release and its first appearance online is 12 days.
- 9 screeners appeared online before they were mailed to Academy members.
- On average, a screener appears online 24 days before it’s received by Academy members. (Excluding these early leaks, the average time is 13 days.)
Some notes on terminology: A cam is a low-quality bootleg, usually filmed with a camcorder inside a theater. The next level up is a telesync, which has a direct audio feed to match the low-quality movie footage. A screener is the holy grail — a (generally) high-quality promotional video for industry insiders only, including the Academy members that pick the Oscar winners.
Also, for some films, the retail DVDs were released before October, rendering the scene’s screener release pointless. This is almost certainly why Thank You for Smoking and Pirates of the Caribbean never saw a screener leak.
If you notice any other interesting trends in the data, or want to poke holes in my analysis, feel free to add a comment and I’ll post updates.
The full results are below. Click on any date to view the NFO file for that particular release. Click the photo icon to see a screen capture for each video, where available, so you can compare the quality for yourself.