Shedding Tears for Screeners

Every year, a certain number of actors are selected by the Screen Actors Guild to vote in the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards. The SAG Awards are like the Oscars, but no one watches them.
Nevertheless, the movie studios want your vote because winning a SAG Award is like winning an Oscar, though no one watches you win it. A movie that has won a SAG Award can then advertise that they’ve won a SAG Award on the DVD and video case. This is expected to increase the number of rentals or sales of that movie, much like an Oscar. Just not as much.
Last year, I received a letter telling me I had been chosen to vote in the 2002 SAG Awards. I didn’t realize the ramifications of this at first, but soon came to understand that this was a most lovely opportunity to expand my DVD collection and feel important. Two things I seldom do.

Without any effort on my behalf, I was of import to movie studios. I soon began receiving DVDs (called “screeners”) in the mail almost every day. And not just any DVDs, but DVDs of films that hadn’t even hit the theatres yet. How cool was it that I had About Schmidt sitting on my coffee table before most folks had seen it? Very, I believe. My collection grew and grew. I even received a “personal” letter from Val Kilmer urging me to watch my copy of The Salton Sea. He signed of with “Respectively, Val Kilmer” rather than the proper “Respectfully, Val Kilmer” so I had a good laugh at his grammatical expense. And I didn’t watch The Salton Sea.
The other benefit of being a SAG Award-voting person was that you and a guest are cordially invited to the screening of various movies. A screening is like going to a movie theatre except it’s much smaller, most everyone is polite and there are no refreshments. Also, the seats are much nicer, and if you’re smart you don’t make comments about the film because you never know who’s sitting around you.
Several of the screenings came with the stars and directors themselves. After sitting through the tedious and awful The Guys we had a nice discussion with the star, Sigourney Weaver, and her husband who roped her into doing the film. The best part about this screening was watching some aspiring actor stand up and tell Sigourney & company that, ‘This was a film that had to be made’ — as clich’d as it was untrue.
After Chicago it was Richard Gere, Renee Zellweger and Queen Latifah answering questions about the movie. As is expected when starving actors are talking to wealthy actors, the questions were of a more ass-kissing than interrogative nature.
The screening of Gangs of New York was so hyped that it was to be held in a regular theatre to accommodate everyone. When we arrived it was chaos – the stars were going to be in attendance and as you can imagine the presence of such celebrity is a crowd magnet. There was a red carpet and lights and cameras set up for the VIP attendees. While folks awaited DiCaprio and friends, we fought our way to the door with our SAG Award invites in hand. There, doormen brusquely informed us that our screening had been relocated to another theatre entirely, and we would have to run several blocks to get there on time. We did, took our seats and waited. For nearly an hour. As my annoyance grew, I decided Mr. Scorsese would not be receiving my vote for certain, even if the film was fantastic.
It was easy to keep to my word in that instance, because the film was just okay. At any rate, my wife was already lobbying hard for Lord of The Rings II which we hadn’t even seen yet.
That screening was another gigantic affair. The privilege of seeing LOTR II before the masses made her so happy that this became the biggest perk of being chosen to vote for the SAG Awards. The problem is, there’s LOTR III this year and since I’m not a 2003 SAG Awards voter it’s going to take a miracle to get invited to that.
2002 was a fantastic year for movies, as it turned out. The majority of the DVDs and screening invitations we had received were quite welcome. My Palm calendar resembled that of a studio bigwig. My evening schedule went from “Polish class” and “Improv Show” to “Screening/Pianist” and “Screening/Secretary.”
It’s with a bit of sadness that I hear that the studios have opted not to send out the DVD screeners anymore, citing the ease of bootlegging these days. Although the theatre screenings themselves are a wonderful perk, there’s something lovely about being able to see The Hours or Frida on your own time, in your own living room, before most folks can see it at the theatre.
The ones who’ll suffer the most are the Independents. While the big studios will have no problem getting bums in seats for their screenings of Spiderman and Catch Me If You Can the smaller folks – the Rabbit Proof Fence folks, will have to work extra hard, without the help of publicity budgets, to convince voters to come see their gems.
Perhaps we’ll see the results of this during the next Academy, or SAG, Awards. If only the big studios walk away with Oscar, and whatever the SAG one is called, we’ll know that the Indies have been left out in the dark. Perhaps they’ll then change their minds, and those of us lucky enough to be selected to vote will once again amass large DVD collections of yet-to-be released films, enabling us to once again impress friends and feel important. If not for a little while.