At any given point, a large selection of recent movies show up on torrent sites, many of which haven’t even been released yet. For anyone who downloaded, streamed, or torrented these yet-to-be-seen-in-theaters selections, you might have noticed one common theme among all of them: they were stuck at DVD quality.

This is no mistake, of course. But it’s the result of a problem that has plagued Hollywood since the days of Napster: how is it possible that movies make it onto illegal networks before they’re showing at the local movie theater, and why is it still happening in 2016?

The Formats

When pirates upload movies to the Internet, they’ll mark them in one of a few different formats. First, there’s the obvious pick: “CAM”. Short for “camera”, this tag implies that the movie had been recorded by a camera, snuck into the theater and set up during either a very late-night or early-morning showing where the perpetrator is unlikely to be caught.

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These are generally the worst quality of the different options as the sound is poor, people can make noise in the theater that interrupts viewing, and getting a perfect 1:1 framing on a shot is basically impossible when you’re trying to take a video on the down-low.

Next there’s telesync, which for all intents and purposes is just another cam rip with slightly better audio (usually piped in from theaters that feature auxiliary jacks in the seats for the hearing impaired).

Some movies, however, carry the tag of “DVDSCR”. As you might guess from the acronym, this stands for a “DVD screener”, which is from a DVD copy of the movie sent to film critics, journalists, producers, and other film industry insiders ahead of the Academy’s annual show. Take, for example, this year’s holiday movies, which include the David O’ Russel biopic Joy and Quentin Tarantino’s latest The Hateful Eight. Both were found being distributed on the major torrent sites well before their official release date.

If a studio is pressing the release of a movie right up against the deadline of when the Oscar votes need to come in, often they’ll release their screeners weeks, sometimes even months ahead of the release in order to give judges enough time to deliberate over the quality of any given film.

How Screeners Leak

This is the underlying problem with the screener system. Despite all their noise about employing some of the “latest developments in anti-piracy technology”, the MPAA continues to mail out physical DVD screeners as soon as it comes time for the Oscar/Golden Globe judges to decide a movie’s worth for themselves.

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On average, a film will be distributed to anywhere from a dozen to thousands of individual people and media outlets through physical snail mail on a watermarked DVD. But even with all the DRM capabilities in the world, the MPAA maintains that simply watermarking a DVD screener is enough to keep it from being pirated. These are either unseen bits of code in the DVD file itself that can trace where it’s been since being ripped, or even a visual watermark that appears periodically throughout the film indicating whose office the screener originally came from.

A good example of this is back in 2013 when a copy of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty leaked online with the watermark “Property of Ellen Degeneres” splashed across the screen, suggesting that the copy must have come from someone in her show’s production staff. Upon investigation, the MPAA learned that this watermark had actually been added by the hackers themselves in an effort to throw authorities off their scent, a tactic which looks to have worked just as intended.

Until the MPAA and the studios can get their own system straight of who’s leaking what and where, it’s unlikely that these wave of Oscar-voter destined DVDs will be staying off the web anytime soon.

The Problem With Piracy

It’s no secret that even though Hollywood posted its biggest take on record this year (a whopping $11.1 billion thanks to the release of Star Wars), these booming numbers are only propped up by the rapidly inflated cost of an individual ticket.

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In fact, the actual number of tickets sold globally (despite rising attendance in emerging markets like China) has plummeted continuously since 1996, and every day theater owners and movie makers alike are being forced to come up with increasingly inventive ways to convince consumers to leave their living rooms and make the trek to their sticky, soda-soaked seats.

And although this drop can be partly attributed to the increase in quality we’ve seen in our home theater setups, it’s also because since 1996, the availability of movies uploaded illegally online has exploded, making it easier than ever for anyone with an Internet connection to not only forego buying a ticket, but actually skirt around having to pay anything at all.

When a screener leaks online while a movie is out (or worse yet, before it’s even legally available), this makes it all too tempting for people who wouldn’t normally torrent to seek out different avenues of seeing a film.

Andy Baio from has been keeping a detailed spreadsheet of all the major Oscar winners in the past twelve years to track this trend, complete with the date the movie premiered paired with when its screener was leaked online. As you can see, some movies will leak online months ahead of their premiere date, all because the studios and Oscar voters (a large percentage of whom are over the age of 60) can’t be bothered to adapt to any sort of technology that was released past 2005.

If movie studios or the MPAA want to cut down on their losses due to piracy, they’re going to need to rethink the DVD screener system from the ground up. Some industry analysts have proposed that instead of sending these DVDs out into the wild with the hope that everyone keeps their scouts honor, simply hold private screenings for the movies over a personalized stream, possibly in a way that allows the studio to monitor the video output for any signs of ripping or DRM violations.

This way, instead of wantonly distributing the film on DVDs that can be easily stripped of their protections in a matter of minutes, the streams are opened and closed on a controlled channel between the studio and the viewing participant alone. All a voter would need to do is let the studio know when they intend on watching a copy, and a representative (this is what interns were made for, right?) stays with the movie from the opening credits until the last bell is rung. This removes the possibility that a DVD could be stolen from someone’s office and ensures that only a select audience gains access to a film before it’s released in theaters.

No matter what the studio system eventually adopts, it’s obvious that if they want to keep their movies where they belong (in theaters until the Blu-Ray release), they’re going to have to start getting a bit more inventive with the ways they try and woo the Academy to whip up another Oscar in their favor.

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Profile Photo for Chris Stobing Chris Stobing
Chris Stobing is a writer and blogger from the heart of Silicon Valley. His work has appeared in PCMag and Digital Trends, and he's served as Managing Editor of Gadget Review.  
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