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Pirates of the Academy Screeners

13 Jan, 2004 By: Holly J. Wagner

Piracy is again the hot topic in Hollywood with the news of an Academy Awards screener of Something's Gotta Give getting ripped to the Internet despite a short-lived Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) screener ban and supposedly tighter controls on who gets access to screeners.

Not that discussion has ever died down, but it looked -- for a minute -- like the heat was off at least until after the Oscars. But the screener leak re-ignited the debate when Sony found a digital copy of the film, ripped from a tagged analog screener, on the Internet.

The more cynical among us might look at the movie's $55.9 million box office over a month and assume it was a publicity stunt. Box office like that on a movie with Jack Nicholson/Diane Keaton star power is not exactly earth-shattering. Maybe leaking the screener was the only way to get anyone talking about this film.

The Academy's Web site carries a list of screeners available to Oscar voters who agree to terms of receipt that are just short of house arrest or tagging the tape with a GPS transponder. I'm not a file trader, but if I was going to steal a movie to share it with a few thousand of my closest cyberfriends, I would be going for the prestige of a 21 Grams, Lost in Translation or House of Sand and Fog, not a film that's losing steam.

The leak comes shortly after McKinsey Research came out with a warning for the content industry that movies could suffer the same fate online as music. I still think that's a bit of a stretch, at least for a year or two, but the McKinsey analyst makes the valid point that illegal downloading will ramp up to fill the content void if the movie, computer and broadband industries can't stave off a the virtual equivalent of a format war and give the people what they want -- and soon.

That means there are at least two format wars looming on the horizon, and mark my words they will overlap. Battle lines are still being drawn over high-def DVD. Internet consumers are tech savvy, they are early adopters who want the latest thing, so they will want high-def, too.

This industry has done so much right with DVD –- content, availability, pricing, marketing –- that the format has taken off like nothing before it. But Hollywood is littered with victims of their own success, and DVD could be just the next casualty if the studios can't play nice with each other and the other two increasingly important sectors in this equation.

Which brings us back to the irony of this particular title getting ripped to the Web. What a metaphor: Something's Gotta Give.

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