New York City is awash in perks, and those who are talented, shameless and/or craven enough to gain access to them tend to take their privileges for granted after not very much time at all. An expense-account dinner at a Michelin star restaurant? Sounds nice, but what's the cab situation in that neighborhood? A 15-percent discount at a luxury retailer? Hmm, the shop down the street gives us 30. Free tickets to a screening? Um, I'm gonna need a plus one for that.

But then there are the perks that never get old -- the freebies and enhancements that are so desirable that they make life better not just for you but for most everybody lucky enough to exist in your orbit. If you have, say, a standing invitation to see "Saturday Night Live," or season tickets behind home plate at Yankee Stadium, you will never lack for friends in this town. (And if, somehow, you do, call me.)

For people in the movie business, the pinnacle of professional perks is access to awards-season DVD screeners. That's the one that makes all the pain and humiliation of trying to do anything productive in conjunction with Hollywood people worthwhile.

Here's how it works: Toward the end of the year, as black-tie season shifts into high gear, the studios send DVD screeners of their most succulent portions of Oscar bait to members of the various professional associations that hand out awards. The goal for the studio is to get its movies in front of as many prospective voters as possible, since you can't (or shouldn't) cast your ballot for a film or performance you haven't seen.

The studios employ various measures to prevent these screeners from falling into the wrong hands. There is usually a somewhat official-looking FBI warning, and language indicating that the video is for "awards consideration only" generally appears on the screen three or four times during the film. In rare cases, your name (or the name of the person you borrowed the disc from) will pop up onscreen as well, a device that is both frightening ("Boy, I would be screwed if this wound up on BitTorrent") and flattering ("Paramount Pictures knows how to spell my name!").

Screeners are a money saver, to be sure, but the real win is the convenience -- and the status symbolism. There are few social maneuvers more gratifying than what I like to call "the screener pivot." A friend or, better yet, acquaintance happens to mention that they're curious to see The Descendants. What's your move? "Oh, I have the screener at home. What are you doing on Thursday night?" Bam! A minute ago, we were talking about movies, and now we're talking about how well connected I am. In the best case, the other person is busy and you get to watch the movie alone, without having to worry about putting out snacks.

I know what you're thinking: Why did you bring up New York? Aren't screeners even MORE important if you live in L.A., where Oscarology is the official religion and people need a passport to leave their own driveways? Sure, probably, but since everybody in Los Angeles either belongs to an awards-voting guild or has sex with someone who does, it's not such a big deal there. If you woke up in your Brentwood home and felt an overpowering need to watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on your home projector, you'd have a choice of two or three dozen people to call. In New York, you'd have to start doing some serious address book analysis: Hmm, Eric sold that pilot to FX; I wonder if the Writers Guild sent him a copy. Jeremy was in SAG back when he thought he was the next Matthew Modine; d'ya think his dues are in arrears?

What you really need is a line to an Academy member. They get everything, and they're usually so successful and jaded that they can't be bothered watching the actual movies anyway. ("Oh, I just vote the Harvey line.") A disproportional number of them also suffer from age-related memory loss, so there's a decent chance you can get away with keeping the "loaner" -- or passing it on to an even less connected friend.

Watching screeners is a fine way to get through the depressing post-holiday period, but it's important to remember that there is a larger purpose: sounding smart and, with any luck, winning money on Oscar night. Since you will have seen 15-20 of the nominated moves, as compared with the average American's annual intake of 0.02 awards contenders, you will possess a significant advantage when you and your friends sit down to fill out your Oscar ballots.

That said, there are two important caveats to keep in mind: First, if no one actually thinks to create an Oscar pool, you will not be able to win any money, so keep a close eye on the situation and don't be shy about forcing your friends to play if they don't show sufficient initiative. Second, some movies that seem a bit ... small on DVD are nevertheless substantial enough when seen on the big screen to take home major awards. For instance, The Hurt Locker and The King's Speech, seen at home, may look like very good HBO movies, but history tells us that they are in fact the best pictures of 2008 and 2010, respectively. Keep that in mind if you happen to lay your hands on a screener of The Artist and find yourself cracking stupid jokes to fill up all that pretty silence.

In this annus horribilus for the box office, the enduring popularity of awards screeners among those in the know makes me wonder what kind of revenue Hollywood could wring out of our all-too-human need to (1) see something that only a select few are privileged enough to see, and (2) feel smugly superior to our fellow man while doing so. Perhaps the studios should consider joining forces on a limited-edition, premium subscription series that would make all the year's prestigious movies available for home viewing to anyone crazy enough to spend, say, $1,000 for the privilege.

They'll say it's too risky: some populist-minded tech whiz will upload them all to YouTube, making all that Oscar-worthy goodness available to every acne-plagued teenager from here to Kazakhstan with a single click. But I have an answer for that: Put our names right there on the screen. If its frightening and flattering enough to keep the pros in line, why not try it on the punters too?
categories Movies