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Keeping Oscar's treasure away from the pirates

A 'secure' machine for motion picture academy members to screen films on DVD is offered, but studios are hesitant.

September 13, 2004|Kim Masters | Special to The Times

Hollywood loves a sequel, but nobody wants a replay of last Oscar season's bitter fight over screeners. The original Battle of the Screeners, you'll recall, sparked family feuds within studios and a high-stakes courtroom battle -- all over whether piracy concerns trumped one of the town's most sacred entitlements: the free videotapes and DVDs that start flowing as the quest for Hollywood awards gold begins.

Battle of the Screeners II hasn't opened yet. But the coming attractions already reveal a new player in the drama -- an 11-pound device the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hopes will emerge as a techno-hero of the show. So far, however, the would-be hero has yet to make a convincing entrance.

The academy has agreed to allow a Reston, Va.-based firm called Cinea to send "secure" DVD players to thousands of academy members, free of charge. The machine, which will cost $800 ($500 wholesale), will play encrypted DVDs that, according to Cinea, are piracy-proof.

Executives at Cinea's parent company, Dolby Laboratories, say the plan is an act of near-charity -- but it's also a shot at eventually harvesting some big profits. Two Dolby executives, both longtime and active academy members, persuaded the organization to back the technology at a presentation in May.

Cinea hopes the studios will sign up to use its encryption technology -- committing for a minimum of three years -- so they can send out screeners on DVD without worrying about illegal downloading. (Last season, many studios sent out individually watermarked VHS screeners so that illegal downloading would be cumbersome and traceable to a source; the move was effective enough to allow pirated videos to be linked back to academy members in a couple of cases.)

Cinea's problem: So far, no studio has committed to the plan and several have reservations about using the new technology. Even Warner Bros., one of the most aggressive studios in the fight against piracy, is hesitant. "We hope to support this because we think it's a really good idea," says spokeswoman Barbara Brogliatti. "But there are still some kinks to be worked out."

The studios have several concerns, mostly centering on the machine, rather than the technology for encrypting the disks. Cinea has demonstrated the device using a prototype but the finished product has not yet come off the assembly line. (The company says they'll be ready in days.) Even assuming that the machines work well, many studio executives are worried that technology-impaired academy members may not hook them up, and will then receive encrypted disks that they can't play on their ordinary DVD players.

At 11 pounds, the Cinea machines are not exactly portable. That's a problem for voters who screen DVDs on the road because they're traveling for business or for pleasure over the holidays. "The first thing I said to [my boss] was, 'You're going to ship this baby to Hawaii?' " one studio executive says.

Some also wonder whether critics or the various guilds will accept the free machines. The Directors Guild, which wants members to view movies on the big screen, will not; the Screen Actors Guild has not settled on a position; the Writers Guild declines to comment. The critics groups have yet to voice a position but Peter Rainer, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, says many "may not be in a position to accept such a gift."

If those groups don't accept the machines, studios that send out encrypted disks take a chance that their films won't be seen by groups that influence Oscar voting. Even if they do take the special players this year, there may be future complications. SAG, for example, has a nominating committee with membership that rotates from year to year.

Bruce Davis, the academy's executive director, says he's not concerned about some of these issues. "If you went away for vacation, you might -- God forbid -- have to watch a movie in a movie theater," he says. Although he has heard other concerns from the studios, he says, "We don't care if they use [the machines] or not. But some of these frettings seem awfully minor. They seem like first-week problems. Does anybody think that cinematographers and editors won't be able to plug in two cables? People have DVDs right now and somehow they get them hooked up. "

Davis says the academy adopted this plan not just to combat piracy but to address the concerns of members who feared they might be blamed if a watermarked disc were stolen or intercepted in the mail.

"Not long ago, there were four different studios saying this is great," Davis says. "I think most of these problems will go away. Or maybe this whole [approach] will go away. Let's bring on the next solution."

According to Davis, the academy and its executives have no financial interest in Cinea. David Gray, vice president of production services at Dolby Laboratories, says at this point the exercise is "pretty close to charity."

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