THERE was a time, not so long ago, when an invitation to see a movie at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences theater in the heart of Beverly Hills was a sure sign of industry clout. But if this season's academy screenings are any indication, those days have gone the way of the newsreel.
Though academy officials will say that overall attendance at its screenings has remained about the same over the last two years, other sources connected to the theater say the sight of so many empty chairs at the 1,012-seat theater on Wilshire Boulevard is striking.
Consider the numbers. Sources say "Casino Royale," a bright spot in recent screenings, drew 742 members but by all rights should have drawn closer to 900 because it was such a highly anticipated and well-reviewed film.
The numbers -- with one exception -- only get worse from there:
"The Departed": 630
"Flags of Our Fathers": 553
"Babel": about 440
"All the King's Men": 407
"Running With Scissors": 342
"World Trade Center": 315
"The Last King of Scotland": 287
"The History Boys": 219
"Catch a Fire": 108
The shining exception is "The Da Vinci Code," the only picture that drew an overflow crowd this year, a feat that went unequalled last year.
So where is everybody? Just about everywhere, it would seem. There are multiple studio screenings all over town -- often landing at a location more convenient to academy voters than Beverly Hills -- and anyone with an AMPAS card can get in free at a public theater.
Academy spokesman John Pavlik said he isn't surprised people don't come in droves to see every movie at the academy's theater. "Lots of them attend studio screenings or other kinds of screenings," he said. "Or, they watch them at home."
Ah, yes, the DVD screener. It wasn't that long ago that major studios, trying to combat rampant movie piracy, quit sending out awards-season screeners for voters to view in the comfort of their homes. But a coalition of independent filmmakers argued that they would be irreparably harmed by the policy because "little movies" such as theirs depended on the screeners to compete against bigger films.
The issue reached the courts in 2003, when a federal judge in New York issued a restraining order that prevented the studios from enforcing their ban on sending screeners to awards voters, critics and other opinion makers. The studios created ways of determining whose screeners, if any, would wind up being pirated. Now studios and indies send them out by the thousands.
Some people might think that the one bastion of resistance against DVD screeners is the 13,400-member Directors Guild of America. Not so. The DGA, in fact, has made it known to studios and independents alike that the guild will gladly send screeners to its members but will inform the competing studios and indies that someone has requested one to give them an equal opportunity to send a screener out.
Purists may deride the advent of screeners but the reality is that even among many directors, there's a feeling that they're as important as the theatergoing experience.
Director Gary Ross, whose 2003 film "Seabiscuit" received a best picture Oscar nomination, said: "I probably see a lot of my movies in DVD format on screeners. I just saw 'The Queen' and loved it. When editing, we edit on a small screen. It's not that strange an experience for us."
But Kris Evans, head makeup artist on "X-Men: The Last Stand," said despite the convenience of screeners, she prefers the theater experience. "I still want to see it on a big screen -- everything about it -- the visuals, the sound, it really encompasses you in a movie theater that you may not get in your home ... especially the makeup arts."
Andrew Sarris, the veteran film critic of the New York Observer, said the reality today is that there are about 150 movies coming out at the end of the year that critics -- and awards voters -- are asked to see. "In my salad days, I used to see four or five films a day," he said. "Now, I'm exhausted if I see two or three."
The popularity of screeners at awards time is not lost on distributors. Many believe that "Crash," which captured best picture at this year's Academy Awards, was boosted when Lionsgate mailed 130,000 screeners to would-be awards voters, including 100,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild.
"I do believe that screeners are an important part of the awards season process, and I think that they should be," said Tom Ortenberg, president of theatrical films at Lionsgate. "At the end of the day, the most important part of the awards season, as far as I'm concerned, is getting your movie seen."