Europe's online source of news, data & analysis for professionals involved in packaged media and new delivery technologies

Making sense of the Munich screener 'debacle'

Steven Spielberg's latest opus, Munich, has missed the first round of nominations by members of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) because they received a faulty screener unplayable on their special machine. This, at least, is the story that spread like wildfire in the media on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Apparently sourced from The Guardian newspaper, the story says the problem "appears to be partly down to teething troubles with the limited edition DVD players issued last year to Bafta members ... Munich screeners were encoded for region one, which allows them to be played in the US and Canada, rather than region two, which incorporates most of Europe."

As a background to the story, most films entered for 2006 awards consideration are still in theatrical release or have yet to be released (on 26 January for Munich). Thus, with a few exceptions – films released earlier last year and already available on DVD – the large majority of films in competition are not available on disc yet.

To avoid illegal disc copies of the films in competition entering the pirate market while accommodating the various academy members unable to see the wealth of titles in the cinema, film studios provide voting members with "screeners" – specially-encrypted DVDs which can only be played on individually registered machines shipped to these members. Disc encryption involves a watermarking procedure that enables law enforcement agencies to trace a disc that would find its way into pirate hands back to the member owning the machine on which the screener was first played.

The SV300 players are developed by Cinea, a subsidiary of Dolby. Some 12,000 machines have been shipped – 5,000 in the UK to those BAFTA members who have elected to vote for the Orange British Academy Film Awards, and 7,000 to the OSCAR and other guild members in the USA.

For Jean-Luc Renaud, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of this website, the Guardian story and the heat it generated make little sense. "As a BAFTA member, I had absolutely no problem playing the Munich screener on my registered Cinea machine. Frankly, I am puzzled at the fuss."

"The player handles PAL and NTSC discs without problem as I received NTSC screeners from the US as well, and virtually all TV sets in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, for that matter, are multistandards," Renaud continues. "As regards region coding, the S-VIEW-encrypted screeners are or should be region-free anyway".

Renaud wonders where the so-called "cockup" story came from. "The only thing that militates against the Spielberg movie's inclusion in the BAFTA shortlist is that the screener arrived at my doorstep via Fedex on Saturday 7 January, a few days after the closure of the first round of nominations."

Whether the screener technology is an effective prevention again illegal distribution is altogether a different, and admittedly, more serious matter.

Academy members or others tapped into the screener-distribution chain have already posted copies of Syriana, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, North Country, and Memoirs of a Geisha to the peer-to-peer file-sharing network BitTorrent, complete with "FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION" blurbs and studio IDs, reports

Seeding BitTorrent with a ripped screener of a 2005 blockbuster today means hundreds of thousands of peers might bloom within hours. Whoever uploaded the ripped 2006 screeners may not have realized that the files contain hidden information that could end up busting them.

The Internet tracking firm BayTSP monitors pirated movie traffic for industry clients. They reported the online presence of this year's screener crop in December 2005. The firm declined to confirm exactly who its clients are or which watermarked screeners it discovered online, but spokesperson Jim Graham says the pirates failed to erase the invisible stamps.

Still, proponents argue that the technology has proven value as a deterrent. In 2004, two men were prosecuted for distributing pirated copies of academy screeners. The FBI said that for three years, actor and academy voter Carmine Caridi, 70, shipped dozens of screener DVDs to Russell Sprague of Illinois, USA. Sprague ripped and uploaded those movies, but the files contained watermarks that investigators used to trace their origin.

"Even more than technology or forensics intelligence," concludes, "the screener system relies on human trust – the trust that those responsible for processing, distributing, and reviewing screeners won't do what this latest round of leaks proves they have."

Story filed 15.01.06

Bookmark and Share

Article Comments

comments powered by Disqus