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Firms Push Envelope to Deter Oscar Film Piracy

Tech companies' ideas for 'screeners' include DVDs that self-destruct or can be tracked. The studios are pessimistic.

October 03, 2003|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

Downloadable flicks wrapped in electronic locks. Special discs designed to baffle digital recorders. DVDs that self-destruct.

These are a few of the ways technology companies propose to let Oscar voters view movies at home without fueling piracy.

The DVDs and videocassettes that movie companies traditionally have sent to voters for Oscars and other awards have been fingered as a rich source for movie pirates, prompting the major Hollywood studios this week to ban mailing them out.

But several tech firms say they can protect these copies -- known as "screeners" -- which are particularly important for smaller independent producers to generate buzz for their movies.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Self-destructing DVDs -- An article in the Business section Friday about technology alternatives to videocassette and DVDs for Academy Awards voters quoted an Oscar consultant who said DVDs that change as they are exposed to air don't work in every player. According to Flexplay, maker of the EZ-D, which becomes unplayable one to two days after the package is opened, the disc is designed to work in every DVD player, computer drive and gaming system that plays conventional DVDs.

The proposed solutions revolve around new movie formats and distribution techniques that make it more difficult to copy films -- and easier to trace leaks after they occur.

One Hollywood film publicist who specializes in art house and independent films said the various options for fortifying VHS and DVD screeners are intriguing but probably impractical for this year's Academy Awards. "I don't know about the timing," the publicist said, "but in the future" new technologies might be helpful.

The studios' main trade group is more pessimistic. The Motion Picture Assn. of America says most of the proposed fixes have the same shortcoming: They can't stop a determined pirate from copying a movie after it's converted from digital bits to analog sounds and pictures for display on TVs. So the MPAA, led by Jack Valenti, is pushing for new anti-piracy features in DVD players, computers and other consumer electronics devices.

Critics of that effort said it would strangle technological innovation. Nevertheless, representatives of the studios, technology companies and consumer electronics manufacturers have been privately gathering proposals, and the MPAA is expected to press Congress to set anti-piracy standards.

Circumventing Protections

Meanwhile, some security experts say the move to stop sending out screeners probably won't make much difference in the industry's burgeoning online piracy problem. Using high-quality digital video cameras, pirates typically copy movies as soon as they hit the theaters -- long before most screeners are sent to Oscar voters.

Conventional DVDs and videotapes have built-in protections that are good enough to stop average consumers from copying the movies they buy or rent. DVDs are scrambled, so duplicating them yields an indecipherable mess of digital bits. And DVDs and videotapes transmit signals as they're played that prevent the typical VCR or digital recorder from making viable copies.

Nevertheless, pirates have found any number of ways to circumvent these protections. The most sophisticated can decrypt DVDs on computers and copy them digitally. Less adept pirates can use computers to intercept and record an analog signal after it has been unscrambled for display on a TV screen.

Technology companies can offer Hollywood at least three alternatives to sending screener discs through the mail.

One approach would use the Internet to distribute films with better electronic locks than DVDs use. Each Oscar voter would use a password to watch or download a movie file that could be played only once.

Curt Marvis, chief executive of online movie distributor CinemaNow Inc., said he approached the studios Wednesday about setting up an area on his Web site for Oscar voters.

He has gotten no feedback yet.

Drawbacks to Viewing Over the Internet

Granted, Marvis said, the voters would need a high-speed Internet connection, and they'd have to run a wire from their PCs to their TVs if they wanted to watch the movies the way they usually do. That may not appeal to every member of the academy, he said, but Oscar voters are more likely to be technophiles with high-speed connections than the average group of movie fans.

The effort would dovetail nicely with Microsoft Corp.'s Media Center operating system, which is designed to transform a computer into a home entertainment hub.

"They should do an ad ... with Jack Valenti watching movies with his Media Center PC, with a big cigar and his feet up on the coffee table, saying, 'I love Hollywood and I love the way I get it with my Media Center PC,' " Marvis joked.

Microsoft, which provides the electronic locks for Marina del Rey-based CinemaNow's movies, concedes that any type of protection can be circumvented. That's why it designed its security system to change when a file is cracked open by pirates, limiting the potential damage.

Even so, Brad Hunt, chief technology officer for the MPAA, said today's PC had too many security holes to be trusted by Hollywood. Beyond that, he said, an Internet-based approach wouldn't work for many Oscar voters because they didn't have computers hooked up to their home theaters.

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