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Fox to put awards screeners on iTunes for SAG members

January 7, 2011 |  9:00 am

IPad The Hollywood awards screener is finally catching up with the digital age. In a first for the industry, Fox Filmed Entertainment will make three current releases from its Fox Searchlight movie unit that were nominated for Screen Actors Guild awards -- "Black Swan," "127 Hours," and "Conviction" -- available as free downloads from Apple Inc.'s iTunes to all of the acting guild's nearly 100,000 voting members.

The move could mark the first step in an industry-wide shift toward making digital copies of movies available to voters for all awards, eventually ending the costly, time-honored practice of producing and sending physical copies of their DVDs.

Fox co-Chairman Jim Gianopulos said his studio is also in talks with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose members vote for the Oscars, and with the British Film Academy, about making iTunes downloads available to their voters as well even though they have already been sent DVD screeners.

SAG members will get a code they can use to download the three Fox Searchlight films in high definition and watch them on a computer, iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, or on television via Apple TV. As with any iTunes rental, films can be watched as many times as the voter wants during a 24-hour period. They will be available from Jan. 7 until Jan. 28, the day votes are due. The SAG awards will be presented Jan. 30.

Studios regularly send DVDs with watermarks -- which identify the video as belonging to a specific person in case it leaks onto the Internet -- to voters in various awards groups. However, Gianopulos said his studio had never before found a way to get screeners to SAG members.

"When you're dealing with this large a number of voters, it's extremely difficult in terms of logistics and would be cost prohibitive to produce and ship screeners to every SAG member," he said, adding that it would likely cost "many millions of dollars" to do so.

The deal, which Gianopulos pitched to and struck with iTunes chief Eddy Cue, will quite possibly prompt other studios to make screeners available via Apple or other digital outlets. That could particularly be true for those whose films are also nominated for SAG Awards and that may feel at a competitive disadvantage.

Screeners have always been controversial in Hollywood, as studios have weighed competing worries about piracy and desires to promote their films to awards voters. In 2003, the Motion Picture Assn. of America unsuccessful attempted to ban screeners. Some studios later participated in a failed test to send Oscar voters special DVD players that could play screeners with stronger copy protection than normal DVDs.

More recently, studios have returned to sending normal discs along with watermarks to crack down on any members who allow their copies to leak online.

iTunes downloads feature much stronger copy protection than DVDs, however, and can only be watched during a 24-hour period, making it easier for studios to showcase their films to voters securely. Gianopulos noted that they could also be useful for people who want to watch a movie on a portable device or before watermarked discs have been produced.

"This could eventually be an alternative for all awards voters to give them access to our films at an earlier stage or while they are traveling," he said. "It's what technology is all about: Giving people more choices to view films while still recognizing that we would always prefer that they see it in a theater if possible."

SAG members will receive an e-mail from the guild and a postcard from Fox Searchlight with instructions on accessing a download code from the studio's website.

--Ben Fritz

[Update, Jan. 8, 11:23 A.M.: See the story in today's Times for much more on awards screeners on iTunes]

Photo: A customer with an iPad at an Apple store. Credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press.

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