This year's road to the Academy Awards is a bumpy one-in September, the Motion Picture Association of America banned Hollywood studios from doling out preview DVDs and videos (or "screeners") of their Oscar hopefuls to critics groups and entertainment industry insiders.
The move, according to MPAA president Jack Valenti, was aimed at thwarting the piracy problem.
But a group of independent filmmakers fought the ban, taking the case to federal court in New York and last week winning an injunction. They argued that the ban interfered with free trade and unfairly hindered small companies. The judge agreed. Pending an appeal, the studios are now free to send out screeners, but so far, they're taking a piecemeal approach to it. Some will send piracy-protected VHS tapes only to those 4,800 Academy members who signed a screener agreement that says they will be fully responsible for the tapes. Other studios also plan to send screeners to critics and entertainment union members. Some may even send on DVD format.
The hubbub has overshadowed what's normally the order of the day: wooing Oscar. At a time when they usually would be extolling the virtues of their films, marketers at the major studios, their boutique divisions and the few still-independent distributors are simply trying to put butts in seats. They've stepped up their screening schedules, and also trotting out the talent for extra Q&A sessions at those screenings as an extra inducement to get people to attend.
"The screener issue has obscured everything," says Terry Press, head of marketing at DreamWorks SKG. "Nobody wants to talk about the movies. They just want to talk about how they didn't get their free screeners."
Executives at boutique studio Fox Searchlight, which has always depended on screenings to generate buzz, say that their larger rivals may understand a little better what they go through every year. "It's never been an even playing field because we don't have the budgets for giant ad campaigns like the majors do," said Nancy Utley, Fox Searchlight's president-marketing. "It's harder than ever for us now."
The Screener Wars, as they've been dubbed, have complicated an already sticky situation. The Oscars have been bumped up a month in 2004, taking place Feb. 29 instead of the usual late March. The result is a compressed Oscar campaigning season with less time to market the crush of Oscar-bait movies released in late fourth quarter. Nominations are due by Dec. 31.
"As we have no precedent to guide us, how can we do business as usual?" asks Tony Angelotti, a veteran Oscar consultant who is working with Disney and Universal. "We're all learning as we go how to contend with these new guidelines and restrictions."
In addition to screenings, studio mavens are relying on the usual raft of trade ads, radio, TV and Internet banners to try to sway Oscar voters. Trade paper Variety doubled its November ad revenue over the previous year, attributed to Oscar campaigning.
The paper's take in March, though, is expected to be significantly lower than normal, said exec VP-publisher Charlie Koones. "When all the shouting's over," Koones says, "we anticipate it'll be pretty close to flat year-to-year."
For all the confusion, at least one good thing may come out of this campaigning season. "People are focusing so heavily on making their movies accessible, they don't have time to trash other people's movies," Press says.
A kinder, gentler Oscar season? It's still early.