Discarded Christmas trees may be lining the streets but the happiest time of year isn’t quite over for Los Angeles. Like anywhere else, last month brought colder weather, bright lights, and looped carols at Starbucks signaling the approaching holidays, with one small addition: an overabundance of manilla Fedex envelopes, the concrete marker of what is collectively known as “screener season.”
Screener season marks the months leading up to award season in January and February, before which industry professionals of all capacities eagerly await their skinny packages, fingers crossed for screeners of the films they didn’t have time to view in theaters, or else wouldn’t mind seeing again. Free copies of the year’s best films aren’t so much a generosity as a publicity stunt: the majority of recipients are also in one of many professional guilds (Writers Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild, etc.) of which members can vote in their respective guild’s awards. Which guild one is in determines which screeners he or she ultimately receives, meaning writers turn to their actor or director friends to borrow the screeners that they didn’t receive from their guild and vice versa.
While researching the Oscar process, I turned to friends and former coworkers for insight. For being such a high profile event, a great deal of confusion seems to surround the voting. Even my most knowledgable friends explained at most bits and pieces, scratching their heads at others. I even got an honest “let me get back to you” from one staff writer.
From what I finally gathered, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (comprised of roughly 6,000 members considered to have substantially contributed to the film industry) chooses the Oscar winners to announce at the February ceremony that concludes the year’s awards season. Leading up to the awards, members of the Academy nominate their peers in their subset of the industry: actors and directors obviously, but this includes sound professionals, editors, costume designers, and so on for every Oscar category. Once nominations are announced, the next step has members voting across these categories. Not coincidentally, Oscar contenders are often also winners in the various guild awards.
But more importantly, for me and my non-guild cohorts, screener season is the time to benefit from our more established friends and colleagues: “I barely got to the theater this year but I heard such good things about The Artist. Do you have it?”
Like randomly selected trading cards, screener recipients too compare notes (“You didn’t get Midnight in Paris? I’ll trade you for The Descendants.”) until the majority of local cinephiles are familiar with Best Picture nominees, at the very least. Pretentious as it may be, I am equally motivated to get in the know as I make my way to various house parties and social functions. Much like TV pilot season at the other end of the calendar, partygoers are eager to hear everyoneʼs thoughts concerning the odds in favor or against such-and-such contender.
Advertising dollars poured into these Oscar campaigns must total enough to buy several small islands. Starting before the holidays and lasting long after, Oscar-related billboards litter every other street corner. Somewhere they all feature the bolded phrase “FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION,” followed by the filmʼs title and corresponding dramatic freeze frame. The screeners themselves will periodically flash this same three word phrase throughout, no doubt to remind the viewer that this copy is not the real DVD (which she should definitely buy), and it is strictly forbidden to copy, distribute, or share it in any capacity.
But that’s a frail hope, and distributers must know that. And yes, online piracy runs especially rampant during Oscar season, but the suits should also know that, frustration at flashing “For Your Consideration” text — however fleeting — is more than enough reason for most to purchase the screenerʼs real DVD. Monetary considerations aside, screener circulation creates a buzz among filmmakers and aspiring storytellers that fuels continued passion and — hopefully — recognizes the artistry of the year’s best in cinema.
And if I’m being completely honest, there’s also the fact that I get a kick out of casually mentioning to non-industry friends and family that I watch still-in-theater movies on my couch over weekends. It makes me feel less lame for missing Bridesmaids in theaters, but only slightly.