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Weighing the success of SAG's iTunes screener experiment

February 10, 2011 |  1:00 pm

Ahead of voting for the Screen Actors Guild's Jan. 30 awards, five studios offered the union's members the chance to watch such movies as "Black Swan" and "The Fighter" via Apple's iTunes (instead of mailing out costly DVD screeners). Was the experiment a success?

Turns out, more than a fifth of SAG's total membership took advantage of the opportunity, and the studios seem pleased with the results. The one blemish on the experiment was that the majority of the films available were pirated at least once each — though that's hardly a bad rate compared to how often DVD screeners are pirated.

According to Twentieth Century Fox, which spearheaded the effort last month, 21,000 SAG members accessed the system that allowed them to watch one of the studio's three films ("127 Hours," "Black Swan" and "Conviction") once over a 24-hour period. The three films were downloaded 58,311 times. According to a studio spokesman, the experiment was a hit, and Natalie Portman's taking the best actress trophy from the guild seemed like more proof that the test run was effective.

However, both "Black Swan" and "127 Hours" were pirated, as proved by the specific embedded codes that accompanied the iTunes downloads. Apple says that its systems weren't compromised. The consensus among studio executives is that the piracy originated with a SAG member using capture software that circumvents iTunes security measures and allows a movie to be copied as it plays on screen. 

"The Fighter" was also pirated. SAG members watched that film 10,000 to 15,000 times, a number Paramount Pictures representatives said they were happy with, especially since the movie was made available to members only two weeks before the awards. (Both Christian Bale and Melissa Leo walked home with SAG trophies too.)

Sony Pictures said that "The Social Network" was not pirated via the iTunes SAG experiment but noted that the movie was already available on DVD and had already been pirated before the availability of the iTunes screeners. Same can be said for Focus Features and its Oscar-nominated drama "The Kids Are All Right." David Brooks, Focus' president of marketing, said the film was downloaded thousands of times via iTunes. " 'The Kids Are All Right' was released in theaters in July and then on DVD and digitally in November so we did not face the same issues as films in active theatrical release," he said.

The Weinstein Co. saw "The King's Speech" downloaded around 5,000 times but the studio made the film available on iTunes later in the cycle and had sent out DVDs to the entire membership. All in all, the experiment seems to be a success. Whether iTunes will be used more next year will depend on the specific films up for awards, which filmmakers are involved, and at what point the films are in the release cycle. But going green via iTunes could solve some problems around awards season.

— Nicole Sperling

"Black Swan" photo from Fox Searchlight