For most of the country, the arrival of fall means cooler temperatures and leaves turning colors, but in Hollywood it marks the official start of awards season and with it the annual deluge of Academy screeners.
An Oscar nomination, or better yet, a win, can have a big impact on a film’s box office performance and so studios are keen to ensure their films are seen by the right people, including Academy and guild members, movie critics and awards show journalists. Exposure is especially important for films that haven’t been widely released but are expected to be prime contenders at the Academy Awards, BAFTA, Golden Globes and other major awards competitions. To generate support for those titles, studios may host special screenings or make films available for viewing online through private streaming outlets. But the most popular way to get pre-released films into the hands of award competition voters is via screeners, individual DVD copies of films sent directly to their homes.
Despite their pervasive use, DVD screeners are controversial. While they come with stern warnings against sharing or tampering with the discs, screeners have in the past been blamed as sources of piracy. When in 2016, pirated copies of best picture nominees turned up on file-sharing sites it led to renewed calls for digital screeners.
But this past year, piracy wasn’t as big a problem. Fortium CEO Mathew Gilliat-Smith, whose company makes a variety of security tools used to safeguard pre-released entertainment content, says that studios have taken larger steps to stifle illegal copying. He notes that his company’s DVD content protection software Patronus was used in the production of screeners for seventy Oscar-hopeful films last season and, according to newswire accounts, not one English-language movie screener copy appeared online during the festive period.
“That included Oscar winners Hacksaw Ridge, Fences, Sing, La La Land, Fantastic Beasts, and Manchester By Sea,” he says.
Fortium employs a team of programmers who are constantly updating the Patronus software to keep pirates at bay. “It’s a cat and mouse game between our team and the ripping programs,” he observes. “We’ll make an algorithm that frustrates them, then they will make their own routine to overcome it. We generally have a three to four-month lead-time on them. By the time the discs begin to circulate in the public domain, we’re already onto our next update.” Gilliat-Smith adds that the lead-time is especially important regarding screeners. By the time pirates can subvert a disc’s copy protection, the title has already been in theaters.
DVD screeners are likely to remain part of studios’ Oscar push for the simple reason that they are very popular. Many Academy members prefer them to private theater screenings or streaming services. “It would seem that some members are not easily persuaded to switch to online screening,” Gilliat-Smith says. “They treasure their screeners and must find it easier and more convenient to pop a disc into a player and watch on their TV rather than to figure out how to get a link to a file to playback via a device.”
DVD manufacturers are currently busy filling studio orders for DVD screeners for their 2018 Oscar hopefuls, and many are using Patronus to ensure that the content doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. “DVD screeners remain a valid option,” says Gilliat-Smith. “There’s a misconception that all screeners leak but, in fact, they don’t. There are obviously no guarantees with any protection, but the security Fortium aims to provide is strong. If we have another year with no leaks in the festive period then Patronus will have contributed to a successful season for the studios.”