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Now you see it ...

Times Staff Writer

Hear that sound of crunching plastic? That’s Hollywood bigwigs trying to avoid a criminal rap.

The Oscar ballots are due Tuesday, but it’s been raining DVDs since November, when the studios began sending out screeners of any movie that might possibly catch the fancy of the 5,808 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and end up with one of the 112 or so major nominations, let alone one of the 24 prizes. Academy members have been swamped with FedEx packages bearing such goodies as “The Incredibles” or “Collateral.” A typical actor member gets around 65, and that doesn’t include duplicates or triplicates -- as many academy members simultaneously belong to a guild or an organization such as the British Academy of Film and Television that also send out screeners.

Most come with a digital watermark -- a kind of electronic fingerprint that identifies each academy member -- so if they wind up on the Internet, the studios and the FBI will know exactly who leaked them and be able to exact costly punishment.

And the fear of retribution works. Most academy members have become, well, nervous, if not slightly paranoid, about their Oscar DVDs. They refuse to let their friends borrow them. They’ve even taken to pondering methods of DVD disposal, and what would happen, let’s say, if a DVD bootlegger managed to fish an old academy screener out of a landfill -- with the member’s watermark still on it?

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“People are asking, ‘How do you get rid of these things? Do you send them to the FBI?’ ” asks Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson, head of the academy’s foreign-language nominating committee.

Academy President Frank Pierson has one surefire solution: destruction.

“Dump them on your driveway, and back your SUV over them,” says Pierson. Or, for the eco-conscious members, your Prius.

At least one member prefers to burn them, torching the season’s films in his own modern update of Ray Bradbury’s classic “Fahrenheit 451.” Others toss them into boxes in the garage, or simply expand exponentially the home DVD library.

“They occupy an ever-growing dusty corner in my office at home and I don’t know what to do with them,” says director Tony Bill, who along with his wife, producer Helen Bartlett, receives two or three copies of each film. “All I’m doing is creating a mini-Vidiots of my own,” he says, referring to the famed Santa Monica video emporium.

And then there are those who see decorating possibilities in the shiny silver disks.

“I know people, including myself, who use them as coasters,” adds academy member and Oscar strategist Tony Angelotti, (although he reserves this treatment for films he doesn’t like).

Just don’t let them out of your sight, cautions Pierson. “Our advice is to keep them and keep them to yourselves.” He even discourages thinking about the poor, the disadvantaged, the elderly who in previous years might have been given copies of “The Aviator” or “Ray” from generous academy members. “There are hospitals and old people’s homes and members would love to donate them for charitable reasons. But they are putting themselves at risk to do that.” Gone is the spirit of giving that used to percolate through Oscar season, when friends and family got to share in the DVD bonanza. Worry has turned members into DVD Scrooges.

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“I have my relatives -- like my mother -- who are very upset with me that I won’t lend them my tapes,” says Johnson. “You never know who’s lurking around the house. The owning of these things has become too burdensome. In the past I would have loaned them, but now I’m afraid to.”

“Because of this Big Brother-ish thing, because of such threats and worry, there’s a heightened sense of paranoia,” says screenwriter and academy member Dale Launer. “To be honest, what bothers me is they do so little about piracy. I think we’re the wrong people to blame. They should look to themselves. When people are selling these things on the street, why don’t they call the police to arrest these people?”

Last year’s high-profile pursuit of character actor Carmine Caridi certainly sent a frisson through the academy membership. Caridi lent his screeners to acquaintance Russell Sprague, who’s being sentenced this month on federal copyright infringement charges. The academy expelled Caridi, who appeared in such films as “Bugsy” and “The Godfather: Part II,” and he’s been ordered to pay Sony and Warner Bros. more than $600,000 in damages. There’s also the case of the then-84-year-old actress Hanna Hertelendy, who unwittingly became linked to an FBI investigation when her VHS copy of “Big Fish” ended up as a DVD on sale on the Internet. She was allowed to maintain her membership.

Academy President Pierson says that most members have become meticulous about keeping their DVDs under lock and key. “I don’t doubt that there is somebody out there. Of 6,000 people, there is bound to be someone who’s careless, but I don’t believe it’s a problem at all.” Of the 30,000 or more screeners floating around Hollywood, some have leaked.

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According to websites that track online piracy, there are even more Academy Award screeners of movies available online this year than last.

Movies include “The Polar Express,” “Hotel Rwanda” and all five films nominated for best picture. The FBI has already launched investigations into the leaking of such films as “Closer” and “Million Dollar Baby,” the latter reportedly involving a guild member.

This year, most of the studios switched from the VHS format to DVDs, which make better copies. The conglomerates also couldn’t agree among themselves how best to thwart piracy, and some opted to send out tapes without the watermarking. Last year, the academy asked members to sign release forms pledging not to share their screeners, a move that was so unpopular that the request was dropped this year.

According to the Motion Pictures of America Assn., piracy cost the industry $3.5 billion in 2004, with the biggest issue not screener abuse, but camcorders recording the films in theaters.

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Some academy members are just relieved they no longer have to spend the awards season futilely trying to keep track of their DVDs and begging friends to return them. Screenwriter Bob Tzudiker signed last year’s agreement and no longer lets his DVDs out of the house. “There is a certain relief in being able to say, ‘No, we can’t [lend them] because there is a demand for them,’ ” he says.

“Our concern used to be we’d never get them back,” says Angelotti. “It went from frustration or petulance because we had a hard time getting our screeners back from our friends, to full-scale paranoia about potential piracy.” Still, for some, family bonds have proved stronger than any studio threats.

“My dad is 91, and my mom is in her 80s. They don’t get out much and they love the screeners,” says one producer. “I’m still letting them see them, but I tell them they can’t loan them to their friends.”

“I still give them to my sister,” says another member, “but she does have to do a number of allegiance oaths.... If you want to convert to Judaism, you have to ask three times -- if she wants to borrow the screeners, she has to do the oath three times. I don’t just take yes.”

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