I HAVE BEEN SO VERY PROUD to be a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or AMPAS or the Oscar people for seventeen years. When I was accepted for membership I was given a certificate of membership and an Academy Card. I’ve lost the certificate, but each year I have been issued a new card.
I use my Academy Card to get into screenings at movie theaters or sometimes at the Academy itself, which is in Beverly Hills on Wilshire Boulevard. And each year when it’s time to submit nominations for the Academy Awards I receive what are called screeners, which are films that the studios want the members of the Academy to consider for Awards. “For your consideration” it will say on the cover of the screener. Now they are in the form of DVDs, but originally they were video tapes.
I’ve always been very happy to receive these screeners; they have made me feel very important. The Academy Awards! I would sit in front of our TV and play the tape or DVD and make notes on a legal pad; I would write the name of a film or actor that might deserve to be nominated. And then when the ballots came I would vote. There are two ballots: a nominating ballot and a final ballot for the Academy Awards themselves.
The Awards take place after that show on the red carpet, The Red Carpet Show. I took my responsibility very seriously, wrote my notes on a legal pad. I have received as many as seventy-five screeners during an Academy Awards season.
A FEW YEARS AGO the film studios’ organization, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) became concerned about piracy and losing revenue from films that had been copied from screeners and sold illegally, pirated, without the studios getting any money. With DVDs it had become easier to duplicate films I guess. So a legal document was sent out to members of the Academy that we all had to sign. By signing it we promised that we would never allow anybody to take possession of our screeners for any reason, and that we would be very careful with them. I think that the Academy sent it out or it could have been the MPAA or maybe it was sent jointly. Anyway, I signed it even though it made me feel strange, like a criminal or something. Like “Academy Member” equals “criminal.” It was insulting, but I signed it.
Not long after that document was sent out, a company came up with a special kind of DVD player that would play DVDs that were encoded to play only on uniquely identified machines; and I was sent my very own machine, without charge. There's a picture of the screen that comes on the TV when you turn the player on.
But not all the movie studios would support this special DVD player for some reason. So a possible solution to the piracy problem had been rejected; and the studios were still very worried, so worried that they began to put all kinds of threatening notices on their films, notices that cited the FBI and Interpol and detailed how the individual screeners were watermarked and how all their “industry colleagues” had better be careful or face severe penalties. They sent me letters of warning about what would happen to me if I ever ever let any of their screeners fall into the wrong hands. This is from the Sony Pictures letter:
Each of these screeners may be individually coded with an invisible unique watermark that identifies the screener and any copies of the screener, with you personally. If any unauthorized copies of the films are traced back to your screeners, you risk civil and criminal penalties. We are asking you to be especially careful in your handling of these screeners—please do not circulate, transfer, distribute, loan [sic], sell, reproduce, or give the screeners to anyone else.
And the letter made me very worried. So now we're all worried; the studios are worried and I'm worried. The studios made it very clear that screeners could be traced back to me. There, to the right, is a typical statement that appears on the screen before the film begins.
That was shown before I could watch “Michael Clayton,” a Warner Brothers film with George Clooney. In case that’s hard to read, here’s what it said. “You are personally responsible for this disc and its content. This screener is digitally watermarked to identify you, the member. Do not loan [sic], rent, sell give away or otherwise transfer to any third party for any reason.”
And those warnings from the FBI and Interpol were also shown on the screen before I could watch a film, and I couldn't fast-forward through them either. Try it and “N/A” shows up in the upper right hand corner. In red. That kind of thing makes you worried.
I mean what would happen to me and my family if one of my screeners got into the wrong hands and was duplicated and they were able to trace it back to me? Would Interpol, the FBI, come and get me? What about my wife? My cats? It made me very worried. I could go to prison.
I mean what if somebody broke into my apartment? Or what if somebody who happened to be working here one day decided to steal one of my screeners? I could go to prison.
SO I DECIDED that I just had to make my apartment more screener-secure so that no one could ever steal my valuable screeners; I began to explore security measures. Here’s a surveillance camera. It cost around $180.00. I thought about putting it above the étagère where I store my screeners. I would attach it to some kind of video recorder, the kind they have in convenience stores to record robberies.
But then I thought what if the power went out and the camera stopped working and a screener thief got in during the power blackout? So it came to me that in those situations I could really use a good guard dog. A really good German shepherd guard dog that is already trained and would kill or seriously maim a screener thief. Such a dog costs about $7000.00 (seven-thousand dollars). The dog itself isn’t that expensive but the training is, and to complicate things the dog understands only German. So I would have to learn German in order to communicate with my screener dog. That's even more expense—for the German lessons.
But then I thought that a dog can get sick or even poisoned or made very drowsy. I mean what if somebody who knew that I had screeners and knew also about my screener guard dog came to my apartment and broke a window and threw something in, piece of meat, with some dog sleeping stuff on it or even worse, poison? Put my screener guard dog to sleep or killed it, broke in and stole my screeners?
So in addition to the trained German Shepherd I thought about a full security system for my apartment. A company called ADT is very good I hear so I contacted them and found that their service cost $850.00 for starters. plus the safe they recommended for my screeners. Yes, I forgot to mention that ADT recommended that I buy a safe and keep my screeners in that safe until I wanted to watch one, return it immediately after watching. And a good screener-sized safe costs between five and seven-hundred dollars.
So that’s the cost of a surveillance camera, guard dog, German lessons,a safe, plus ADT, making a total of $8730.00 as an initial, screener-security investment plus my Academy dues of $250 per year. And who knows how much yearly maintenance of all that would cost. Dog food, vet bills.
That’s a lot of money for us, We live on my actor's pension and Social Security plus Cathy’s paycheck. So I was thinking that maybe I would need to get a job to support screener security and Academy membership. And it seemed that going back to acting might be a choice, but at my age the only parts open for me are for very sick people or cadavers. And there are already so many old character actors out there looking for those jobs that I don’t think that I could make enough money to support screener security and Academy membership, too much competition. So acting was out.
And anyway we only have one car and Cathy needs it to get to work so it wouldn’t be available to get me to interviews.
$9000.00 for starters plus yearly maintenance. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. Even if we moved to a smaller apartment. Even if took a job managing an apartment building again; I just couldn’t figure how to do it.
And I have reluctantly come to a decision. So that I won't contribute to film piracy by inadvertently allowing one of my screeners to fall into the wrong hands, pirating hands, thereby costing the film industry millions of dollars (not to mention putting me in prison), I will not renew my membership in the Academy.
It makes me sad, but I’m also happy in a way. Because without those screeners being delivered to my vulnerable little home, with its multiple and human inefficiencies, I know that it will no longer be possible for me to harm the studios, my industry colleagues and the Academy. Yes, so by resigning from the Academy I will contribute to saving the film industry, and I have to be happy about that.
30 November 2007