Pirating the 2007 Oscars

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.

Raw Data

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.

The fields, in order, are the title of the film, the date of its US release, the date that Academy members received the screener, and the release date online of the cam, telesync, and screener versions of each film. (See sources below.)

Movie Title USA Release Screener
Cam Telesync Screener
An Inconvenient Truth 5/24/2006 11/18/2006 9/11/2006

  9/20/2006 (VHS)
Apocalypto 12/8/2006 12/21/2006 12/13/2006


Babel 10/27/2006 11/18/2006 1/16/2006   11/27/2006

Blood Diamond 12/8/2006 12/18/2006   12/17/2006


Borat 11/3/2006 12/21/2006 11/5/2006


Cars 6/9/2006 12/12/2006 6/10/2006 6/10/2006

7/24/2006 (VHS)
Click 6/23/2006   6/24/2006



Curse of the Golden Flower 12/22/2006 12/26/2006   1/13/2007

Dreamgirls 12/15/2006 1/3/2007 12/29/2006


Flags Of Our Fathers 10/20/2006 12/15/2006 10/30/2006


Half Nelson 8/11/2006 10/25/2006     9/1/2006
Happy Feet 11/17/2006 12/13/2006 11/21/2006



Letters From Iwo Jima 12/20/2006 12/26/2006      
Little Children 10/6/2006 11/16/2006 11/22/2006   11/27/2006

Little Miss Sunshine 7/26/2006 10/11/2006     11/20/2006 (VHS)

Marie Antoinette 10/20/2006 11/16/2006 7/2/2006

Monster House 7/21/2006   7/18/2006


Notes On A Scandal 12/27/2006 12/11/2006      
Pan’s Labyrinth 12/29/2006 11/16/2006     10/18/2006
Pirates Of The Caribbean 2 7/7/2006 11/29/2006 7/7/2006


Poseidon 5/12/2006   5/13/2006


The Black Dahlia 9/15/2006     9/16/2006


The Departed 10/6/2006 12/8/2006 10/7/2006 10/8/2006 10/27/2006

The Devil Wears Prada 6/30/2006 12/13/2006 7/5/2006 7/13/2006 9/9/2006 (VHS)

The Good German 12/15/2006 1/2/2007     1/13/2007

The Good Shepherd 12/26/2006 12/26/2006     12/29/2006

The Illusionist 8/18/2006 11/27/2006 8/19/2006


The Last King Of Scotland 9/27/2006 11/6/2006 1/6/2007

The Prestige 10/20/2006 12/5/2006   10/31/2006

The Pursuit Of Happyness 12/15/2006 12/15/2006 12/17/2006   12/21/2006

The Queen 9/30/2006 11/20/2006 9/30/2006

United 93 4/28/2006 10/23/2006 5/6/2006


Venus 12/20/2006 12/15/2006      
Volver 11/3/2006 11/13/2006     10/30/2006



    I find it most interesting to note how quickly films become available online after their initial theatre release date. Borat, Click, Pirates 2, The Queen, Cars, Poseidon, The Departed and Apocalypto all appeared online as Cam or Telesync booties within 1 week of their release date.

    I’m interested in corollaries between release speed and other characteristics. I’d love to see a larger chart with data such as a) film budget, b) # of screens released, and c) genre. Do family films arrive online more quickly than chick flicks? Do geek-cred films (Borat, X-Men) arrive in better quality sooner than regular action movies? Someone better build me this chart 😉

    Interesting research. Worth noting: with bootlegs made from R5 early release discs apparently on the rise, the screener leak phenomenon might be irrelevant by this time next year.

    You could conceivably augment your research with an R5 column with an additional set of queries (apparently the term usually appears in the file name, in the same way “screener” does).

    More info on R5 bootlegs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R5_%28bootleg%29

    A small correction: A good quality TS is considered the holy grail of movie piracy; correctly done, picture quality is very far from low. A screener is typically fairly low quality, and typically has an overlay or distracting text added to the picture.

    Those Swedish guys who had their own TS machine were putting out DVDR releases that frequently were of higher quality than the subsequent studio retail DVD releases last year despite starting with theatrical distribution prints. Studio TS work for retail DVD production can be stunningly bad — see many Disney releases until fairly recently — whereas those European dudes actually put some effort into their TS work and encoding.

    I’d certainly rather have a well-done TS than a screener.

    On sixfoot6’s point: yes, infoporn would be great. This is begging for some interesting visualization. Would be doubly interesting to animate against previous years.

    mister pedantic: You’re confusing Telesync (TS) (using a video camera to record the screen) with Telecine (TC) (scanning film negatives into a digital format). A TS will never be on par with a dvd release (screener or not). A TC could be better than DVD, but probably isn’t.

    Good stuff and very relevent in these dark days of DRM stupidity. Please extend your study to more movies. Check out the paper here for a comprehensive study of hundreds of movies in 2003. This was published just before the 2003 screener debacle and the Caridi prosecution.


    Here’s a letter I sent to the trades (Hollywood Reporter, Variety) a couple of months ago. They chose not to publish it but I think the points are valid:


    An open letter to the studio marketing departments regarding the inconvenience of encrypted screeners:

    As another awards season appears on the horizon and the studio marketing machines begin to activate, I can’t help but look over at the stack of DVD’s from last year that is sitting by the TV. Specifically the stack of DVD’s that I didn’t manage to watch.

    Seriously, you guys aren’t making it easy! These encrypted Cinea screeners – yet another attempt to ‘protect’ the studios from all of us apparently unethical Academy members – are really rather ridiculous. Oh, I’m sure it sounded sensible when someone first came up with the idea – ensuring that the DVDs can only be played on this special player that you provide. That shouldn’t be much of an inconvenience, should it? Well, it is. Because there just aren’t that many hours in the day and finding time to watch a movie is something that’s often hard to schedule.

    So I’ll watch them when I’m traveling, or when I’m at the office, or when I’m in the bedroom… in short, I’ll watch them when I find the time and I’ll watch them on a variety of different places on a variety of different devices. On different DVD players, on my office computer or on my laptop. And so a good number of these ‘protected’ DVD’s just plain don’t get watched.

    The bottom line is this: As soon as Digital Rights Management becomes a burden – a burden to professionals in the industry or a burden to consumers at large – that’s the moment when other less-restricted media will begin to take its place. In this case, that’s the moment when I’ll toss your encrypted screener on the ‘reject’ pile and pop in a DVD from one of the studios that trusts me to be a sensible and ethical adult. I’ll leave the ramifications of these actions (in terms of your movie’s award chances) to your imagination.

    Ron Brinkmann

    I think more focus needs to be placed on flea markets. I frequent flea markets in my area and have been to various flea markets around the southeast. AT EVERY ONE are multiple sellers that have dozens of copies of “current movies”. Last week at my local flea market I counted 5 different sellers. On big summer weekends – there are upwards of 2 dozen sellers.

    The flea market owners are to blame if you ask me … they accept table rent for these crooks.

    I see no crime in giving away anything or sharing … I see a lot wrong with someone profitting from someone else’s work.

    I think it’s a losing battle for all concerned .. bootleggers will always find a way, and let’s face it, they don’t have the burden of production costs for the original art.

    FYI, the pan’s labyrinth screener from October was VHS quality w/ heavy watermarking (but apparently distributed on DVD, thus the “DVDRip” tag)… A full screener has leaked (I think it hit 1/8/07), with only 2 5-second “for your consideration” messages, but I don’t think is widespread enough to hit vcdquality.com yet.

    Sample from a divx conversion I did: http://img412.imageshack.us/img412/3098/pan49gm.png

    Be careful when counting a movie as “leaked”. Many of these “leaked” movies on torrent sites turn out to be fake files (possibly intentionally created by studios)

    When a movie is shown on VCDquality.com it is normally not a fake. If it turns out to be screwed up in anyway, mislabled or out of sync, it is nuked. Im sure the creator of this article took that into consideration.

    The Departed isn’t out on a screener yet, even though there’s that Pukka rls. That’s actually a poor region 5 (Russian) dvd or possibly TC with line-in English audio that goes wonky in the last twenty minutes. You can normally rely on Pukka but not this time…

    You’re missing a column for retail DVD rls too. No point rlsing a screener if there’s already a retail – like with Cars, POTC, The Prestige, etc…

    If you were a director or actor nominated for an award and didn’t get it with reason to believe it was due to your studios paranoia about piracy you’d be pretty annoyed. I wonder if any directors with significant clout have had a big argument with their studios over this issue.

    Here’s a great reason why a studio choosing to encrypt their screeners is making a huge mistake. The Cinea players are crap! After less than a year of very light use, my Cinea player would not read half the DVD’s I tried in it, whether encrypted or not, and when it did read them, it would often get stuck during play or jump chapters for no reason. I finally asked for a replacement player, which I received and then found that I still could not play some of my screeners. I was told by customer service that I need to install enrollment software to view newer screeners and they will have to ship me the CD. ?????? So they send me a new machine to replace a faulty one, but don’t include necessary software so that it will actually read the DVD’s? What the hell point is there in sending the equipment if it won’t read the screeners?! On top of that, it appears that at least a couple of studios had an added level of security and each screener is matched up with the player that was registered to your name when the screener was mailed out to you. These screeners will only play not just on a Cinea player, but on YOUR Cinea player. So now that I have an actual working player, I STILL can’t play many of the screeners that were mailed out to me this awards season. YAY! Great job Cinea! You know what, studios? I won’t be voting for any of those films because I haven’t seen them, and I don’t think that was what you wanted.

    You’re right, no “Notes on a Scandal” but a DVD screener of “Venus” has been available for a while now, and what a great movie it is – O’Toole for best actor!

    In retail they call the monetary loss due to shoplifting “shrinkage” .. (never mind the Seinfeld definition) .. retailers generally budget for it and accept it as a cost of doing business.

    This seems to be one of the largest moral quagmires of our age.

    Everyone can understand that if YOU were putting your own blood, sweat, and tears — not to mention, cold hard cash, on the line to create these true artistic masterpieces… whether it be film, music, software, whatever… You would want to be sure you were SELLING copies of it… not GIVING it all away for free. It’s only fair. Like any other work.

    On the other hand, the public seems to have an innate moral sense that… once it’s created, and published… It’s fair game to “give” it, or “share” it, with anyone and everyone. And anyone who tried to prevent that “sharing”… is the BAD guy… Big Brother of sorts.

    It’s a bizarre paradox of scruples.

    Then, to throw one more wrench into the mix… There are those producing content which they WANT people to freely distribute — to share and share alike… and the file-sharing technologies are the PERFECT distribution mechanism for those.

    Where will it all lead?

    If record stores (aka music stores, CD/DVD stores) dropping like flies… is the miner’s canary… warning us of things to come…

    EVERY SOFTWARE CONTENT CREATOR business will be in trouble… This includes the makers of music, films, books, audiobooks, and software of all kinds.

    What will a world without copyright be like?

    Singers have had to come out of retirement to hit the road doing live concerts again… to make their mortgage payments.

    What will REALLY happen to the spirit of creativity, art, inspiration, etc.

    The naysayers say that creativity will die a slow painful death.

    Meanwhile, the descendants of Leonardo da Vinci ARE NOT receiving royalty payments from every viewer of the Mona Lisa…? Are they? Even while he was alive, did Leonardo da Vinci EVER receive royalty payments from each viewer of his paintings?

    Did the fact that he did not receive 3 cents per viewing… act as deterrent to his creativity?

    Things that make you go, “Hmmmmm…”

    Maybe this “brave new world” — a world where copyright is an unenforceable thing of the past… will be a world that looks VERY MUCH like the real world of the past…

    One thing I know for sure: Creativity will not die.

    The ability to SHARE your art to an audience of UNLIMITED size — without the need for intermediary networks, agents, production companies, distributors, promoters, theater and venue organizations, and retailers… all taking their cut along the way… might in fact have these results:

    -> ANYONE creative can create their own masterpieve.

    -> ANYONE who creates something awesome can distribute it to a worldwide audience without anyone’s permission, and without a monetary investment.

    -> The awards and accolades bestowed on the Best will be based on a much more democratic audience — not just a tiny incestuous group of industry insiders.

    -> We all might just learn that the Best creations DO NOT cost $43 million to produce. They might be produced with a budget of only $4300… or $43.

    -> We might also learn that a bucket of butter-flavored popcorn should NOT cost $8… and that it’s not healthy for us anyway.

    To Bruce:

    The economics have changed greatly from Leo’s time. In those days there were patrons and the artwork was privately owned. These artists would travel from gig to gig (the music composers did the same) in order to get paid. Most who settled, did so in large cities that had a lot of paying patrons. Back then, a lot of people couldn’t really view the Mona Lisa.

    Today, the reality is royalties. They get paid minimally and are paid for each pay. So every piece of media you don’t pay for, the artist is making less and is therefore a little less motivated.

    I blame the media execs for not understanding this. The major comsumers of music are probably the youth and a lot of people will tell you what happens when you offer free pizza to students. They will gorge.

    It affects all of us. Sooner or later this playground will probably come to an end. We just need a few smart people to understand this new reality.

    Also, its not limited to music/film. Art and books and newspapers, etc are struggling with this new distribution system. We’re in a flux and soon we’ll settle into an equilibrium.

    It may not be long before there are very few “stars” in Hollywood. With the rapid take off of viral videos, anyone can get spotted. It’s not about who you know as much anymore. Soon people will be saying “did you see the guy that made the movie on youtube about…”. Point in all of this being, times are changing and if the Hollywodd mougals want to protect their culture they will have to cause a techno-media regression.

    I think that part of the problem is resistance to change, something we are all guilty of at some time or other. The movie makers and music producers will have to change to suit the new technologies. Maybe when the younger people of today reach the executive positions things will be different, but by then there will be even more changes????.

    If singers have to come out of retirement to “pay their mortgage” then they need to see an accountant. The home should have been paid for when they were making millions of dollars.

Comments are closed.