Being a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is quite the responsibility, but it also has its perks. In the late 1980s, film distributors started sending VHS copies of potential awards contenders to Academy members for their consideration. These 'screeners' later included DVD and Blu-ray copies, but with the issue of video piracy growing, this process needed to be legislated. In September 2003, then-MPAA chief Jack Valenti agreed to exempt Academy members from a ban on all screeners, as long as they signed an agreement not to share their copies.
Academy members still enjoy early and exclusive access to home copies of movies that are potential awards contenders. This comes with considerable drawbacks if the agreement is broken, a fact that actor Carmine Caridi found out the hard way. He was implicated in a massive case of copyright infringement and was subsequently expelled from the Academy, after unauthorized copies of his screeners were found online.
In a detailed interview with THR, Caridi discusses the now notorious incident, giving an earnest yet cheeky accounting of his side of the case. Caridi is best known for his role in The Godfather Part II and III, but was only invited to join the Academy in 1982 after appearing in Prince of the City. His screeners started arriving shortly after, and he admits to having made copies for people, including his brother and sister. The 83-year old is quoted as saying: "Let me tell you something...Everybody does it, OK?". He also admits to sending his screeners to a friend called Russel Sprague, saying that "he was happy to help out a fellow film buff".
Then, in 2004, unauthorized copies of Something's Gotta Give, The Last Samurai, Mystic River, and Master and Commander, were found online and traced back to the Academy member:
Early in 2004, says Caridi, "a guy from the Academy called and says, 'Carmine, did somebody steal your screeners? Because they found them on the internet.' Then I called Sprague and said, 'Hey! What did you do? I'm in trouble here.' 'Well, don't use names, Carmine …' 'What do you mean, don't use names? I'm not gonna go to f—ing jail for you!' "
Caridi was called to the FBI's L.A. office, where he was offered immunity for naming Sprague, who was then arrested and charged with criminal copyright infringement. While the FBI were relatively lenient on the actor, the Academy's board of governors expelled Caridi with a unanimous vote. He says: "They wrote me a letter: 'You're finished'." Shortly after, Caridi was sued by both Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros., and was ordered to pay the maximum penalty of $300,000, plus attorneys fees to each studio. He claims that he wasn't even aware it was possible to put copies of his screeners on the Internet, but that he doesn't blame the Academy: "I did violate their law".
Despite this precedent, Oscar season remains a busy period for video piracy and leaks. Several notable Award-winners and contenders leaked before their release have been traced back to screeners, yet nobody has been expelled from the Academy since Carmine Caridi.
The 89th Annual Academy Awards ceremony airs Sunday, February 26th, 2017 on ABC, starting at 8:30 p.m. EST.