When Oscar season hits Hollywood, count on three things: teary-eyed speechifying, long lines at Botox boutiques, and tightened security on the "screeners" essential to the Academy Awards process. These days, screeners are high-quality DVDs. The movie studios send them to voters as a convenience, since academy members, at least the conscientious ones, have dozens of movies to watch before filling out their ballots.
But there's one big problem. Academy members and movie production workers may wring their hands over piracy in public, but backstage some of them are apparently file-swapping like tweens. Despite studio attempts to prevent leaks online this year, and the threat of jail time and steep fines for movie pirates, at least four screeners are on file-sharing networks already. More may follow.
During Jack Valenti's reign as head of the Motion Picture Association of America, panic over awards-season leaks reached such heights that studios banned all screeners in 2003. This miffed academy voters, who had become accustomed to the comforts of viewing at home. The ban was later reversed, but the problem didn't go away. In recent years, screeners have been issued on DVDs that contain watermarks—hidden data strings—used to trace leaks back to their sources. Other anti-piracy measures include encrypting DVDs so that they will only play in special machines supplied exclusively to voters.
Academy members or others tapped in to 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.
When screener distribution became widespread in the mid-1990s, leaks were not considered as significant a threat as they are today. Sharing a VHS with five of your nonvoting buddies back in 1997 wasn't a big deal. 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.
Jian Zhao is chief technology officer in the content security division of Thomson, the parent company of Technicolor and other firms that serve the movie business. One of the tools Zhao developed at Thomson is a watermarking program that inserts a short string of numbers throughout the file. "We're inserting that invisible stamp in each frame … and we can we design a different stamp for each recipient," explains Zhao as he demos the app for me in his Burbank office. Zhao closes the app and launches another—this one is a watermark-detection program. He opens a watermarked movie that he downloaded from the Internet. The app slowly chomps through the movie, frame by frame, spitting watermark digits back on the screen like black seeds. Cross-referencing that information with a database of award voter names helps investigators figure out whodunit.
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.
However, Princeton University computer-security researcher Alex Halderman says the technology has its limits: "It's just one piece of evidence, not a conclusive link that proves you or I released a screener on to a peer-to-peer network. There are many opportunities for a movie to be intercepted or stolen after we watch it, so it's not conclusive proof of who committed the act—and it can only help after the act happens." And while developers may strive for sound and image tags that are simultaneously invisible, traceable, and unerasable, even the technology's strongest advocates admit there's no such thing as a perfect watermark. As the technology improves, so do abilities for more determined downloaders to detect and delete it.
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. Sprague ripped and uploaded those movies, but the files contained watermarks that investigators used to trace their origin.
Sometimes, the steps taken to secure screeners render them inaccessible to the people who need to see them. Organizers of the U.K.'s counterpart to the Oscars, the BAFTA Awards, supplied members with encoded DVDs for Steven Spielberg's Munichthat would only play on Cinea DVD players provided for that purpose. But BAFTA voters who received the discs soon learned they'd been mastered for Region 1—that's North America—instead of Europe. Effectively, the discs were unwatchable for voters, meaning Munich will not have a fair shot.
Though he's long gone from the MPAA, Jack Valenti may yet have the last laugh. Even more than technology or forensics intelligence, 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.
Here in Hollywood, you just can't trust anyone.