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Experts Mixed on Digital vs. Physical Screeners

22 Dec, 2015 By: Chris Tribbey

Hateful Eight

In a world of illegal downloads and online streaming of films still in theaters, one might think Hollywood would be suspect of the very idea of digital screeners, and just stick with the traditional watermarked DVDs sent to awards voters and members of the press.

But recent events might lend credence to proponents of a digital only world for advance screeners of new content. Over the Dec. 18-20 weekend, high-quality screeners of Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight and the Leonardo DiCaprio thriller Revenant were leaked online, ahead of both films’ Christmas Day theatrical releases.

Both films have already been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, according to Bit Torrent news site TorrentFreak, and peer-to-peer sharing group Hive-Cm8 has not only claimed responsibility for the leaks, but said it has also gotten its hands on as many as 40 advance DVD screeners of Hollywood content, and “will [release] them all one after another, started [sic] with the hottest title of this year, [and] the rest will follow.”

According to Eugene Tang, executive director of content security for 20th Century Fox, both the studios and distributors have been increasingly relying on digital to deliver their screener content, and there’s a good reason why. Anyone can steal and rip an unsecured DVD, and post the content online. With digital, “it’s got to be more secure than a DVD, by its nature of not being [physical],” Tang said, speaking at the recent Content Protection Summit (CPS) in Los Angeles.

“DVDs have been around since the ’90s, and there’s no reason we should still be using ’90s technology in 2015,” he said.

Tang called for every major studio to get on the same page with one digital delivery screener system, not only because it might prevent the problems with DVD screeners, but also because “it’s a much more enjoyable experience, to be able to sign in, see every single movie [available], versus waiting for it to come in the mail.”

“I think that part of the problem is that there are two major public perceptions about this that we need to watch out for: that studios in general don’t get what consumers want, that they’re behind the times, that people still want DVDs [exclusively],” he said.

However, Anthony Anderson, director of film security for Universal Pictures, pointed out that just as many (if not more) problems exist with digital screeners: log-ins and passwords can be shared, each browser and each digital device presents unique security challenges, and an online offering can be attacked by anyone.

“With every new change there are challenges, and one of those is with a site, anybody can … get to the front page,” he said, also speaking at the CPS event. “Before, if you shipped a DVD to the home, you had to steal it from the doorstep. Now you can sit at home and attack the site, which presents a host of issues.”

Anderson said log-in restrictions (how long content is available, where it can be viewed, and the number of devices available for viewing) must be in place for the delivery of digital screeners.

When it comes to why DVD screeners are still so prevalent, Dmitry Primachenko, SVP of business development and information technology for Deluxe Media, has a simple answer: Industry guild members are old fashioned, and they consider DVD screeners “a perk” that they can add to their libraries.

“I think there are more political challenges than anything else,” he said at the CPS event.

While there were mixed opinions on the digital vs. physical screener issue, every speaker agreed that watermarking was a must. How effective watermarking is was another issue. The pirated versions of Hateful Eight and Revenant had no noticeable watermarks, according to reports.

Kai Pradel, CEO and founder of digital content delivery company MediaSilo, is obviously a fan. His company’s technology is used by several content companies to deliver watermarked digital content, all in the name of preventing piracy. But Pradel is also a realist, and he knows watermarking alone isn’t cutting it today when it comes to Hollywood protecting its intellectual property.

“Most of, if not all, of the screeners leaked on torrent sites aren’t watermarked,” he said at CPS. “There’s a disconnect when it comes to [protecting content], and the stakes are higher,” he added pointing out that in the 1990s there were only 15 films with a budget of more than $100 million, compared with about 150 so far this decade. To protect these increasingly pricey assets, watermarking — both physical and forensic — is helpful, but it’s not the only thing needed.

At least with watermarking, people can be held accountable, according to Graham Oakes, chairman of the Digital Watermarking Alliance. He said that a “vast majority” of those sharing pirated content “would not be involved if they thought they could be identified.”

“A watermark persists even if you mess with it, transcode it, compress it, any myriad of things consumers like to do with their content,” he said. “It’s part of the media, and it’s not going away.”


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