Breaking In to the Movies

This sneak preview by a UT film student stole more than the show at Sony Studios

Rhys Southan admits that yes, he is somewhere in Austin, Texas, and yes, he is an undergrad at UT. But he's quick to add that he's not taking classes this semester, and the implication is obvious: Those who are looking for him need not search the campus.

The 23-year-old film student is on the lam, avoiding the letters and phone calls from the police force of Culver City, California.

Culver City police Lieutenant Dave Tankenson says he'd like to talk to Southan about numerous break-ins that the Texan committed over several months last year in the small burg, a slice of the greater Los Angeles area.

Southan had used his earlier documentaries to savage his subjects.
John Anderson
Southan had used his earlier documentaries to savage his subjects.
Subtitles were needed to overcome poor sound quality in some sections of the film.
Subtitles were needed to overcome poor sound quality in some sections of the film.

But Southan says he has no plans to turn himself in. He'll take his chances staying on the run, and extradition be damned.

Besides, he's sure that people won't believe that he's a menace, not if they understand why he stole into Culver City's most famous landmark, the movie studios owned by Sony, home to Sony Pictures Entertainment and Columbia Pictures.

Certainly, television journalists already hot on his trail seem unable to understand Southan's motivations. The story of his studio break-ins, perpetrated with accomplice Sara Rimensnyder, 24, managed to make a splash on the new tabloid show Celebrity Justice as well as EXTRA and the Today show, each time without input from the pair of lawbreakers themselves.

Treating it as little more than an unusual crime story, TV journalists didn't seem to fathom the reason the upstarts would break into such a storied institution and videotape themselves doing it.

As it turns out, the two miscreants had even dared to make a movie about their caper.

Their documentary, Sean Connery Golf Project, depicts Rimensnyder and Southan protesting bad Hollywood movies by stealing seven formulaic screenplays, rewriting one, and then surreptitiously returning them. The short film was featured earlier this year at Austin's South by Southwest and other film festivals, and gained the two a small amount of notoriety -- but the showings also alerted Sony, and the studio contacted law enforcement.

On August 28, Culver City police arrested Rimensnyder on a felony burglary charge. Tankenson says charges against Southan also will be filed, even though he has not been arrested.

Rimensnyder's charge was reduced to a misdemeanor when it was filed by the district attorney's office. She faces up to a year in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000, and declined to speak to the Houston Press.

But Southan was freer with his thoughts.

"EXTRA made us look like dangerous criminals," he says. "They said something like, 'Rhys Southan may still be on the run!' "

The television coverage of their crimes has completely missed the point, Southan complains, and he hopes that a full telling of how Sean Connery Golf Project came about might help explain why he and Rimensnyder filmed themselves slipping past less-than-vigilant Sony security guards, sitting on the roof of the Sidney Poitier building, riffling through files in the offices of Gracie Films, pilfering Columbia letterhead and cavorting in the sanctum of James L. Brooks, producer of The Simpsons.

Sean Connery Golf Project is not a great documentary, even by indie film standards. The camera work is sloppy. The sound is so bad that Rimensnyder and Southan resorted to subtitles in places. And even at only 17 minutes, it contains several minutes of extraneous material.

But it's not hard to see why film festival directors snapped it up.

Rimensnyder and Southan portray their invasion of Sony as a half-joking act of civil disobedience against a bloated industry turning out increasingly crappy cinema. Their premise: They attempt to strike a blow for better filmmaking by stealing and then improving one of the potboiler scripts without Columbia's knowledge.

Scott Beibin, director of the Lost Film Fest in Philadelphia, adores the mini-doc.

"I really like the spirit in which it was made…Right now we're in a time when big media is consolidating more and more, and we're dealing with so many issues of censorship in the wake of 9/11 hysteria. It's very refreshing to have independent viewpoints," Beibin says. He showed Sean Connery Golf Project in June and said audiences reacted strongly: "People loved it."

The film also was chosen for three other spring film gatherings: South by Southwest, the San Francisco Documentary Festival and an international festival in Perth, Australia.

Southan appeared for the Philadelphia showing and says that "audiences really got into it." Nearly everyone, he says, had a question about the film's legality. "People always asked if we were afraid of legal consequences. I said no, I didn't think Sony would do anything about it…It was just a question that I sort of brushed off."

He knew that Sony was aware of the film because some of the studio's executives attended the festivals. What Southan didn't know was that private investigators had obtained a copy of the film. In June, a Sony official claimed to Culver City police that the two scripts Sony was able to identify among those taken were worth nearly $1 million.

But Sony's internal investigation apparently was hampered by the lack of security reflected in Rimensnyder and Southan's film. The studio was never able to identify five of the scripts the couple took.

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