With major media fanfare, Hollywood studios have announced a big advertising campaign designed to curb film piracy. But behind the scenes, studio executives are wondering how much their own Oscar campaigns - in which thousands of "for your consideration" DVDs are mailed to voters and opinion-makers - are feeding the lucrative underground market.
While Academy Awards season is still months away - and not even on the radar screen of the general public - the Motion Picture Association of America is in talks with the seven major studios on how to minimize the potential harm caused by Oscar mailers, known in the industry as "academy screeners."
"We're weighing not sending DVDs this year because of the piracy issue," said Terry Press, who heads marketing at DreamWorks SKG.
Press noted that Oscar-campaign copies of last year's Tom Hanks-Leonardo DiCaprio chase film Catch Me If You Can wound up in China and on the Internet auction site eBay.
Videocassettes also can be copied, studio officials say, but usually they are of lower quality than DVDs, which can be endlessly duplicated without degrading the images.
"People say the image is so much better on DVDs," Press explained. "Well, that is just what counterfeiters think too."
"Clearly, it's an issue that needs to be addressed," said Robert Friedman, chairman and chief operating officer of Paramount Pictures' Motion Picture Group. Friedman said Paramount has been discussing the issue of Oscar mailers, but the studio has not decided how to proceed.
Last year, piracy concerns prompted Disney to send out only VHS copies of Spirited Away, Treasure Planet and 25th Hour.
The 6,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who vote on the Oscars increasingly are requesting the studios and independent distributors to send them DVDs rather than VHS cassettes. And most studios have been obliging - up to now.
Universal, Warner Bros., Walt Disney Studios and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer said this past week that they have made no firm decision on the issue.
Miramax Films, which captured the Oscar for best picture this year for the jazzy musical Chicago, said that it planned to mail DVDs in the coming awards season, but it stressed that no final decision had been made. "As of now, we have no plans to change from past years," a Miramax spokesman said, adding: "We're always looking to protect the integrity of our material."