By Martin A. Grove DVD dilemma: The challenge Hollywood faces as it struggles to find a new way to do its Oscar marketing without using DVD screeners would be difficult enough, but coming only about three months before the Academy mails out nomination ballots it's truly a dilemma.
With the Academy's new compressed timetable, there isn't enough time even for dedicated voters to see more than a few films before making nominations in January. That should make Golden Globes nominations more valuable than ever. They'll be announced Dec. 18 as many Academy members are getting ready for winter vacations. When they return, Oscar voters will have the Globes' noms to review as they decide which films they should take the time to see. With so little time in which to catch screenings of so many would-be contenders, it will make all the sense in the world for Academy members to look at the list of films that members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. have just honored with nominations and to figure that these films must be worth taking the time to see.
DVDs were such the industry's most valuable marketing tool on the Oscar front as well as in all awards races because they really were able to level the playing field between the high-profile product that was typically but not always released by the major studios and the lower-profile product that generally came from independent distributors. Thanks to DVDs, almost any film could be seen by the voters at home without them committing a great deal of time and energy to considering it. They could afford to give it a chance, knowing that if after 15 or 20 minutes they didn't like it, they could then go on to the next DVD in their stack of 30 or 40 or whatever.
There was nothing wrong with that approach since if we're talking about Academy members we're talking about the industry's elite. These are seasoned filmmaking professionals with years of experience doing what they do. They wouldn't be in the Academy if they didn't have the credentials they have, would they? After 15 or 20 minutes, this is an audience that can tell if a picture deserves nominations or not. And when they decided a film wasn't worthy, because they were watching at home on DVD they were able to vote no without influencing other voters. At screenings, if one or two people walk out you invariably see other people follow them minutes later. Without a word being said, it's as though everyone suddenly realizes that they're wasting their time watching this movie. Even people who may not have felt so negatively towards the film can suddenly find themselves swayed by others hurrying up the aisle, sometimes mumbling about how they've had enough of this one. With DVDs, it was an individual decision to stop watching and look at something else. Nobody else was influenced.
Although it would be nice to think that all movies put up for Academy consideration or for consideration in other key awards races have an equal chance of being seen, that's just not the case. There always have been the big movies that everybody's dying to see and that generate immediate RSVPs when their screening invitations are received. These are films that people have no problem making time to see. You don't have to ask your spouse if she or he wants to go because you know instantly that they'll be thrilled to go. Some recent examples of such films are "Intolerable Cruelty" and "Love Actually," both from Universal. In the case of "Intolerable Cruelty," we're talking about a movie from the Coen Brothers and producer Brian Grazer that stars George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Having already had a look at its premiere, I now know that it's funny and smart and a lovely way to spend an evening. When the invitation arrived, however, I didn't know that. But from what I did know about the film I figured it would be funny and smart and a lovely way to spend an evening. As for "Love Actually," here we're talking about writer-director Richard Curtis, who wrote "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill" and "Bridget Jones's Diary." And we're talking about an ensemble cast including the likes of Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman and Colin Firth. Plus, we're talking about a film that looks terrific because it's set in London during the Christmas season. You'd have to be crazy not to go to a screening of "Love Actually! "
On the other hand, there are other awards season arrivals that don't boast high-profile filmmakers and stars and must achieve the near impossible by convincing voters to give them the time of day. With DVDs, of course, it was a lot easier, which isn't to say that it was easy. Jack Valenti keeps saying that 68 films were sent out in DVD mailings to Academy voters last year and that 34 of them were pirated. I don't believe he's actually saying, however, that those 34 titles were pirated from the Academy screeners. It also sounds like very interesting math that exactly 50% of the DVDs were pirated. Perhaps those numbers need auditing like lots of other Hollywood numbers often do.
In any event, an Academy voter with a stack of 68 DVDs would be looking at least 136 hours of film. That's based on an average of two hours per movie, but awards contenders are frequently much longer in length so the total hours could easily be more than 136. If a voter sat there and did nothing but watch movies around the clock, it would take at least six days to get through them all. Would anyone actually do that? They'd probably go through the stack and pull out a handful of DVDs they knew something about and thought might be interesting because of their filmmakers or genres or stars or reviews or word of mouth. Devoting a few hours a night over the course of a month, they'd get through quite a few titles, watching some, turning others off and skipping some others.
This year, unfortunately, not only won't there be any DVDs to view -- aside from the ones available in video stores for films like Universal's "Seabiscuit" and Disney's "Finding Nemo" that arrived early enough in the year and will already be in DVD release at year-end -- but there also won't be a month in which to fit in all the viewing. Academy members who go on vacation from Christmas through New Year's will wind up with only about eight days in early January in which to consider films to nominate before the Jan. 17 deadline for returning their ballots. For most people, that probably means seeing just four or five films at screenings.
People have their own comfort level in terms of how many evenings a week they're willing to run out to see movies. Two or three nights seems to be about right for most people I know. In the presummer and preholiday season weeks when there's so much product to see, it's not unusual to run into friends and colleagues at screenings who are grumbling about how it's become "every night at the movies." When it comes to Academy voters in early January as the New Year gets underway and they're catching up from having been away on winter holidays, I don't think you'll see people catching two screenings a day. I don't think you'll even find many people seeing one film every night. What you will see is a lot of picking and choosing and that's not going to work to the advantage of anything that needs to be discovered.
What Hollywood needs to do suddenly is rethink the whole concept of how to promote films so Oscar voters will either make time to see them or will vote for them sight unseen. Essentially, Oscar marketing this year isn't all that different from the marketing Hollywood does year-round to the public in that the goal is to get somebody into a theater to see a movie. The only difference is that the public has to pay to get in while Academy voters are spared the expense. Nonetheless, it's still all about making people aware of a film and then convincing them to commit the time and energy to go see it.
Assuming that Valenti doesn't unexpectedly wave his magic wand and enable the studios to send out DVDs once again, the only way to get people to attend screenings will be to hold lots of them and make sure everyone knows when and where they're taking place. Fox Searchlight Pictures was the first distributor to recognize the value of a dramatically enhanced screening campaign, announcing last week that it will screen Jim Sheridan's drama "In America" at four L.A. theaters (including the Arclight in Hollywood) every Thursday night until the film opens Nov. 26. Academy and guild members will be admitted to these screenings at no charge. DreamWorks indicated earlier this week that it will screen its drama "The House of Sand and Fog," starring Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley, from Nov. 14 through Dec. 11 at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills, which is right across the street from the Academy's Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. Other distributors are likely to follow suit since it makes great sense to try to make it as easy as possible for the voters to be able to see awards worthy films theatrically if they aren't going to be able to see them at home on DVD.
Other solutions or attempts at solutions are likely to be proposed. There's already been talk of using available technology to send out DVDs that will self-destruct within 24 hours of being removed from their sealed envelopes. I'd be surprised if Valenti thinks that's a good idea since, obviously, if pirates get their hands on the unopened DVDs they'll also have a 24-hour window in which to duplicate them. Others are proposing encoding DVDs or cassettes to make it easy to trace the source of movies that are pirated. The argument here probably is that such fingerprinting won't stop piracy, it will only help find out where the pirated material came from.
Of course, a good question is whether the pirates want to copy and then try to sell movies that nobody's really heard of. Only a handful of the pictures entering the year-end marketplace are really the kind of high profile blockbusters that a self-respecting pirate would stoop to digitizing. Looking ahead, I'd say DVDs of (in no particular order) "The Last Samurai," "Cold Mountain," "The Alamo," "Master and Commander," "Peter Pan" and "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" are films that would be at high risk of being ripped off. I'd be surprised if there were pirates out there drooling over the prospects of copying lower-profile films like "21 Grams," "Girl With a Pearl Earring" and "The Company." I don't mean to suggest that these aren't good movies. It's just that at this point they're still waiting to be acclaimed by the critics and endorsed by the awards givers. After that happens, the pirates may well want them, too. But for now it's hard to make a case that sending out DVD screeners of such films would result in global piracy.
Frankly, it's hard to understand why the studios releasing that handful of pirate-worthy films didn't just opt to not hold back on releasing screeners of them. Most Academy members would probably want to see these big films on the big screen anyway. Moreover, these are such high-profile pictures that they're virtually automatic must-see films for nominating purposes. People will plan on seeing them at screenings anyway, so not sending out DVDs of them would not diminish their awards prospects.
Instead of holding the line on not mailing out screeners of a half-dozen or so films, the MPAA blundered tragically and threw the entire awards process into disarray. Valenti has been quoted as saying Academy members are "lazy." I don't agree. I think they've shown, particularly in recent years, that they're very serious about rewarding quality motion pictures regardless of what size company produces or distributes them. Academy members aren't lazy, but like everyone else I know they have too little time in which to get everything done that they've got to do. Viewing DVDs at home wasn't just a convenience, it was a necessity.
Assuming that Academy members will somehow see everything they should see is probably very naive. They'll see what they can manage to see. And they'll see what they think they want to see. Personal taste will be a factor. Films from their friends or from filmmakers they've worked with in the past will probably be on their lists. And films that are Golden Globes nominees or that are being embraced by critics groups will probably have an increased likelihood of being seen at screenings.
What can distributors do to enhance the chances that voters will go to screenings to see their lower profile films? One possibility I'd like to suggest would be to take advantage of the Internet and post streaming video of five or six film clips from such films. These clips could be chosen by a film's director as being representative of that movie and as a kind of invitation for voters to go out to a screening of it. Carefully selected clips would be the equivalent of letting someone watch the first 15 minutes of a DVD and then decide whether to bother seeing the rest of the film. True, there would now have to be a commitment of time and energy to attend a screening, but it would no longer be a blind choice based on a film's elements. What's more, there might be some voters who because they're pressed for time would decide to cast a vote for a film just based on seeing the clips. Five or six clips would represent anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes of a movie and in some cases that might be all anyone needs to see to nominate it this year.
Martin Grove is seen Mondays at 9 a.m., 5 and 8 p.m., PT on CNNfn's "The Biz" and is heard weekdays at 1:55 p.m. on KNX 1070 AM in Los Angeles.
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