Every year around now, tens of thousands of DVDs of movies still playing in theaters are sent by Hollywood studios to Oscar, Golden Globe and other awards voters.
Every year, some of these discs are copied, and the movies end up being shared online, where they can cut into theater-ticket and DVD sales.
This time, studios are taking a new approach to prevent this kind of piracy, and technology is playing a big part.
Ahead of Sunday's Screen Actors Guild awards, Fox Searchlight this month became the first studio to have nearly 100,000 SAG voters view new movies such as "Black Swan" through a free download from Apple Inc.'s iTunes store. Paramount Pictures, Focus Features and other studios did the same later with movies such as "The Fighter" and "The Kids Are All Right."
In all cases, downloads are set to expire 24 hours after being viewed and are not available to the public.
As an anti-piracy tool, virtual screenings are cheaper and simpler than past efforts. But digital screeners won't necessarily be a savior either. People determined to break the law will find a way, even if it comes down to recording a digital movie by pointing a standard video camera at the computer screen.
The Motion Picture Association of America estimates that $25 billion globally is lost to it every year, and it is partly responsible for US DVD sales falling from a peak in 2006 at $20.2 billion to about $14 billion in 2010.
Although the industry group says most of the damage comes from handheld video camera recordings in theaters around the world, awards screeners are still a problem.
In the past, studios went as far as sending voters specialized players equipped with stronger copy protections than regular DVDs, but that system was abandoned years ago as being too troublesome.
So most studios continue to send discs to voters by mail — as many as 20,000 per movie. And the risk of leaks remains.
Oscar screeners sent out in late 2008 were the source of online bootlegs of "Slumdog Millionaire," "Australia," and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Investigators followed the trail of unique disc identifiers called watermarks and convicted two men of felony copyright infringement.
The penalty for uploading movies to websites can reach up to three years in prison and a fine for first-time offenders, but the penalties get stiffer for repeat offenders or those with a profit motive.