Pirating the Oscars 2022: The Rise and Fall of the Screener Over 20 Years

It’s Oscar night! And for the second year in a row, every single Oscar-nominated film has leaked in HD quality before the ceremony, but only three of the 32 nominated films leaked as Oscar screeners, a radical change from years past. What the hell is going on?

Back in 2004, I started tracking the illicit distribution of Oscar screeners because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was seemingly in denial, or completely unaware, that virtually every nominated film routinely leaked online. (The L.A. Times headline that inspired it still makes me laugh.)

That project turned into an annual ritual where I’d wake up on the day the nominees were announced and add to a spreadsheet now covering 643 Oscar nominees across 20 years and write up my analysis about the trends that emerged from the data.

Continuing the trend from last year, we can see the pandemic accelerating a rapid decline of interest in screeners. Let’s take a look at the data to see why.

Death of the Screener

Screeners, as we know them, are dead. But not for the reasons you might think.

Last year, the Academy announced they were finally banning physical screeners. Voters would no longer receive DVDs or Blu-Rays by mail, with screeners exclusively available through Academy Screening Room, a free video streaming app for iOS, Apple TV, and Roku accessible only by Oscar voters.

Screenshot of the Academy Screening Room app for Roku

Studios and filmmakers are charged $12,500 for inclusion in Academy Screening Room and an additional $5,000 fee for optional forensic watermarking, and required to follow rigid technical specifications for video, audio, captioning, and art. (Animated features, international films, documentaries, and shorts are exempt from the fee.) Presumably, this is still much cheaper for studios than producing and distributing physical screeners to all 9,487 eligible voting members, especially when individually watermarking to discourage piracy.

With so many voters still avoiding theaters because of the Omicron variant, and without the option of physical screeners, it’s safe to say that virtually every Academy voter was using Academy Screening Room this year. Over 160 films from 2021 were available in Academy Screening Room, including every eventual Oscar nominee.

To ease studio concerns over security, the Academy partnered with several technology companies for secure digital delivery of screeners, including Brightcove’s streaming video platform, NAGRA NexGuard Streaming’s forensic watermarking, Akamai’s Adaptive Media Delivery, and BuyDRM’s KeyOS MultiKey Service.

With all this DRM and forensic watermarking, could this spell the end of leaked digital screeners forever? If history is any guide, no. Historically, any DRM and watermarking can be defeated or bypassed, often with a surprisingly trivial amount of effort, if there’s demand for what it’s protecting.

Screeners aren’t dead in the piracy scene because physical screeners are gone, or because digital screeners are any harder to pirate. They’re dead because nobody cares about them anymore.

Screeners Are Irrelevant

There are two trends we can see over the last few years that have transformed how films are leaked online, and both of these radically accelerated during the pandemic.

  1. Fewer screeners are leaking than ever. Only three nominated screeners have leaked in each of the last two years, 9% of nominees compared to 80-90% 20 years ago and 30-50% pre-pandemic.
  2. Nominated films leak faster than ever. It used to take a median 10-11 weeks for the first high-quality leak of a movie online. The median for the last two years has been between 1-3 weeks.

As I noted last year, the pandemic destroyed the traditional release window between theatrical and streaming/video-on-demand dates. Movies used to have a theatrical window of exclusivity, typically 75 to 90 days, enforced by deals with theater owners. These windows vanished during the pandemic as box office ticket sales cratered, either because theaters were closed or people were just staying home.

Studios and streaming platforms opted instead for streaming-only releases, or they were released simultaneously in theaters and online as “day-and-date” releases, to Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, HBO Max, Disney+, Paramount+, or other streaming platforms.

The result was that every film leaked online in HD format from streaming/video-on-demand platforms before Oscar screeners were even released, rendering screeners effectively useless.

To be clear, this is continuing a trend that started long before the pandemic. We can see the impact of tightening release windows starting in 2015, but their decreasing desirability started in 2009, first driven by demand for higher-quality video than DVD screeners could provide and then by the ubiquity of streaming platforms.

The Rebirth of Screeners

20 years in, I’m tempted to end the project. It feels like a good stopping point. It’s clear that pirates won this fight, and as far as pirates are concerned, screeners are now largely irrelevant.

And yet, I’m still very curious what will happen when the worst effects of the pandemic on the film industry subside. Studios are planning to return to theatrical windows this year, though with an emerging industry standard of 45 days, down from the 75- to 90-day windows of the past.

It seems likely the gap between theatrical and streaming release dates will start to rise again, creating more pressure and demand for screeners. The Academy is putting a lot of faith in their technology for Academy Screening Room, but it feels like the only thing saving them right now is a lack of interest in what they’re protecting.

If that changes, the attention of every scene release group in the world will turn to getting access to an Academy Screener Room account, defeating its DRM, and removing any digital watermarks. The first to unlock it will find itself in possession of an incredible treasure chest: instant access to every screener submitted “for your consideration.”

So maybe I’ll keep this going a little longer to see what happens. Grab some popcorn, enjoy the show, and I’ll see you next year. πŸΏπŸ΄β€β˜ οΈ

Academy Screening Room screenshot

Comments

    I just want to see if a comment form on a blog still works.

    Also “Fewer screeners are leaking than ever.” doesn’t have the “r.” in bold like the rest of the sentence.

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