[news=http://www.tucoo.com/logo/logo_eps010/s/Disneys.png]LOS ANGELES, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Walt Disney Co. <DIS.N> on Monday plans to become the first major Hollywood film distributor to back an anti-piracy DVD technology that stirred controversy last year in advance of the important Oscar race.
Disney said it would release DVD "screeners" -- copies of movies sent to groups that vote on awards -- only for DVD players made exclusively by a Dolby Laboratories <DLB.N> unit, Cinea, and engineered to thwart illegal copying.
"We feel like this is a really strong first step in addition to all the other things we do to combat piracy," said Dennis Rice, who heads Disney's Oscar publicity campaign, which will include films such as "Shopgirl" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
Hollywood's awards season is of major importance to the studios because awards help lure moviegoers to theaters, but increasingly screeners have been copied illegally and posted on the Internet or sold in street markets before a film hits theaters.
For years, Hollywood studios have sent screener videos and DVDs to members of voting groups so that if they cannot get to a theater, they can watch the movies at home before they vote.
Two years ago, the studios tried to ban all screeners, but the ban was unsuccessful. Last year, the Cinea players were not sent out soon enough to make an impact, and several nonOscar groups complained that they were not being given the players.
Now Cinea plans to distribute 12,000 players to members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
The DVD players are encoded with recipients' names, and screeners sent to those people are specifically encrypted so they can be seen only on those particular DVD players.
Larry Roth, vice president of marketing and business development for Cinea, said the company expects to send players to other groups like the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which awards the Golden Globes. He said details with those other groups were still being worked out.
"We're going to be supporting SAG, their nominating committees, the HFPA and some critics groups," Roth said.
Rice said he hoped other studios would follow Disney's lead, but representatives for Sony Corp.'s <6758.T> Sony Pictures Entertainment and General Electric Co.<GE.N>-controlled Universal Pictures said those two studios would not. Others were still considering their options.
Typically, the studios would watermark or otherwise encrypt the DVDs with special software codes allowing any copies to be traced. That policy has worked in recent years as illegal copies have been tracked and the recipients arrested or fined.
The other studios' reluctance to join in the Cinea effort could represent a challenge to Disney's award campaign if Disney's commitment to use only Cinea technology limits the number of award voters who see their films.
Rice said Disney also will promote its films by holding special screenings in theaters for awards' groups. He noted, too, that many members of the U.S. and British academies are members of the other film groups.