Way back when studios sent out screeners on VHS tape that would display a text of “For Review Purposes Only” every few minutes, this was for a time when reviews showed up in newspapers and magazines. The necessity for screencaps did not exist because the technology did not exist, at a user level. Reviewers would be provided with stills their publications could use for promotional purposes. The downside to that system was the expense. For big studios this was a write-off as they could produce presskits in bulk. It was an expense often outside the capabilities of many indie filmmakers, especially those at the grassroots level.
Today’s digital media and internet have changed that. Screeners can be downloaded with no expense up front such as discs or tapes. And screeners can now be used for screencaps and stills can be hosted online and downloaded by reviewers for use in their reviews. A lot of what was the province of big studios can now be done by the independent filmmaker.
So why aren’t you using this opportunity?
I am actually speaking to a minority of filmmakers here as, I don’t know the exact numbers, most filmmakers do take advantage of the current technology and internet offerings to make their films available for promotions, but there still are quite a few who don’t.
One of the reasons up front, and a very real reason, is piracy. Filmmakers know it exists, and giving out a password to a screener to a reviewer is no guarantee that it won’t be shared and even downloaded for upload to another site. After all, all it takes to be a movie reviewer… well, let me list the qualifications:
That being said, anybody can get a free blog, start a Twitter and Facebook account and call themselves a reviewer. I did! Having an opinion and being able to write a basic sentence does not engender trust and it’s understandable if someone is iffy about trusting a screener to someone they don’t know. And I sure hope I have not added to paranoia for someone who had not been thinking of this.
Getting a bit off topic, this is another feature we are working on with this site. The reviewers directory is not going to list reviewers just because someone says they are a reviewer and have a blog. There are qualifications to be listed in our reviewers directory. Though I’m keeping those qualifications to myself, they do include things like how long they’ve been doing it, their responsiveness to requests and the integrity of their reviews. I can’t say this is a cure, but it sure plugs up several holes. It’s extra work, a lot, but I’d rather do the extra work than send a filmmaker to someone for a review who is a complete unknown.
Back to screeners.
What is and what is not a screener for reviews?
Well what is not a screener for reviews is having it only available on Amazon Prime. Myself, I don’t have Prime and if you ask me to review your film that is only available on Amazon Prime I’m going to say no. There are options to “view free with ads”, but for me that requires the installation of other Microsoft software and runtimes. Again, the answer is no.
Apple iTunes? For me they’ll let me install the iTunes software, against my better judgement, but won’t let me download unless I upgrade my Windows version, and I mean with a newer Windows install. WTF? A big NO!
Not everybody has the same computer, the same software, and where websites like Amazon and iTunes require special access, that means installed software, and what we used to call Trojans years ago is now labelled as “to make your online experience better”. Oh gag me with a spoon!
The varieties of user access to the internet include Macs, PCs, tablets and smartphones. When your screener is on a specialized website requiring specialized software to view a specialized format, well you can imagine how much each of those specializations cuts out another segment of the population. I’m not saying the majority of the population, because once again I don’t know the exact numbers. But for someone like me who started with Windows 3.1 and knows how to configure a tcp/ip stack and ports for networking, I’m not trusting of software running constantly in the background from companies, oh, such as have admitted to slowing down people’s smartphones when a new model has come out.
Eventually my breed will die out and be replaced by those who walk in step to what big brother says is good for them. But until that happens, you still have to deal with me and those of my generation, and ask yourself who do you want reviewing your films; a teenager/college kid barely out of their diapers who thinks they have the world figured out because mommy and daddy can afford the latest technology for them, or someone with experience from joy to heartbreak to tragedy who can get what you’re trying to say? The only ones you will alienate with specialized sites requiring specialized software are from the more experienced crowd who don’t have blind faith in “trust me” signs.
What is a screener for reviews?
Let me be blunt: MP4
An MP4 file can be played on anything from Macs to PCs, tablets to smartphones. It does not require specialized or paid software as the included media players on devices and computers will play them.
Although it’s nice to have an HD quality screener, that’s primarily for the purpose of getting screencaps. A 360p screener is reasonable for review purposes (except in the case of a widescreen presentation greater than 1.85:1), provided you make available stills from the film. Screencaps can still be done from 360p files. We like to have bigger images for review purposes, but, *this is for reviewers, images can be enlarged either with SmillaEnlarger or by tweaking the settings on an image editor/viewer. No more than double the size in either dimension if using an editor, up your dpi to 96, and take down the sharpness of the image by lowering the saturation and/or a soft/desharp filter, and lower the contrast just a tad (you can also use gamma adjustment to de-saturate). This does not actually sharpen the image, you can’t do that, but it makes the artifacts of enlargement less noticeable.
Watermarks or text on screeners is understandable as it helps to protect the filmmaker. But please, never put a text or other protection across the center of the screen. I’ve had this happen once and will never review another film from that distributor if they continue to do it. It is too distracting to try to watch and review a film around a printed text bar dead center. It will detract and potentially hurt your review; because I can tell you up front the reviewer surely did not enjoy it, and that will likely be reflected in the rating. It’s not that they are grading you on the text, but something that makes the viewing experience unpleasant will psychologically affect your rating.
The most important part about a screener is to have one in the first place. Yes, reviewers can be stubborn and harder to move than a big dog that has found just the right spot to be comfortable. Just having a screener available doesn’t guarantee you’ll get any reviews without doing the legwork, so to speak. But not having a screener of some kind available somewhere does almost with a certainty guarantee you won’t get any reviews.
YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook and other video hosting sites online, including some blog hosting services like Blogger, allow you to upload videos. Since I don’t upload videos on them I don’t know the particulars about their limits. Outside of Vimeo most of them convert them to Flash files and they have to be reconverted to MP4 files to download, though I do believe Facebook still allows them to be downloaded as MP4s while YouTube requires an online converter site, which in and of itself is a tricky situation, but even if the reviewer can only stream the screener that far outweighs not having anything available for review.
If you want to get your film reviewed you need an accessible screener. You can password protect it and even screen potential reviewers before you give them access. But without a screener for reviews, you just won’t get any.