Movie Pirates

That couple in the back row — they're making out big time, but not in the way you think

Brandy and Chris meet at the AMC Studio 30 movie theater at Dunvale and West­heimer in southwest Houston. The couple, whose names are not really Brandy and Chris, have been there several times before; they're comfortable there, and that's important for what they're planning to do. They purchase two matinee tickets to the 1:50 p.m. showing of monster flick Cloverfield. Just before two in the afternoon is an odd time to see a scary movie, and that's exactly why they've chosen it. Oh, and also because the matinee is cheaper. "Movies are expensive now. The early show is the only time I come," says Chris. An odd statement from a guy who is about to take something from the theater considerably more valuable than the four dollars he just saved.

The couple stops to order snacks before making their way to their seats. One large order of nachos, one large order of popcorn and one large Coke, "two straws" — they both laugh. Once in their seats, smack in the center of the empty top row, Chris replays their rehearsed plan again and again in his mind. Brandy is doing the same. They plan on bootlegging the one-day-old Cloverfield — making an illegally camcorded copy of the movie — and now it's time to begin. Start the clock.

Brandy opens her purse and removes a paper bag, a digital voice recorder, four plastic ties and a camcorder attached to the one-inch top piece of a camera ­tripod.

More than 81 million counterfeit DVDs...
Photos courtesy MPAA
More than 81 million counterfeit DVDs...
...have been confiscated since last year.
Photos courtesy MPAA
...have been confiscated since last year.

Ten seconds. Chris pours the popcorn into the paper bag handed to him by Brandy — "Why should I waste it? That shit ain't cheap" — and then cuts the bottom out of the popcorn tub.

Twenty seconds. While he does that, Brandy attaches the camcorder to the armrest in between them, steadying it with the dismantled tripod top, the four plastic ties and a napkin or two to get it leveled.

Thirty-five seconds. Chris cuts a hole in the side of the popcorn tub and places it over the fastened camcorder, the emptied and cut-up tub working as a sort of commonplace camouflage. (That way, should an usher happen to glance their way, he'll most likely see a happy couple enjoying the movie and the vague outline of some delicious, not-at-all-overpriced popcorn, instead of a pair of sly movie pirates concealing a JVC Digital Camcorder with 32X Optical Hyper Zoom.)

Forty seconds. Brandy takes the digital voice recorder and secures it to a pair of headphones that will be playing the movie audio, and, making sure not to cover the sensor on the top of the headphones that receives the sound, carefully situates the set-up in her oversized Gap purse.

Done. The entire process takes less than 45 seconds. Clearly, this is not the first time they have done this.

Two hours (and no interruptions) later, as the credits roll, Chris stands up to stretch as Brandy swiftly removes the camcorder and disassembles the headphone/voice recorder setup. The first step of a three-step bootlegging process has gone off without a hitch. Unfortunately for those trying to stop movie pirates, Step 2 will prove to be far easier.

Pirating DVDs is big business nowadays and the motion picture industry, with the help of federal and local law-enforcement agencies, is waging a multibillion-dollar game of hide-and-seek with movie bootleggers across the globe.

More than 81 million counterfeit DVDs have been confiscated since last year, yet the latest research shows that piracy still costs the worldwide motion picture industry, which includes foreign and domestic producers, distributors, theaters, video stores and pay-per-view operators, $18.2 billion dollars globally. That's "billion" with a "b." BIG business.

The Motion Picture Association of America's six major member companies — Disney, Fox, Paramount, NBC-­Universal, Warner Bros. and Sony — lost $6.1 billion alone to piracy, $3.8 billion of which was traced to illegal camcording and hard-goods piracy. Camcording is responsible for supplying 90 percent of newly released content to bootleggers. These are numbers that do not sit well with MPAA Vice President and Director of U.S. Anti-Piracy Operations Mike Robinson. "Anyone who owes their living even remotely to the motion picture industry is affected by [piracy]. It has an extremely detrimental effect on the economy, and we cannot stress that enough."

Chris, the antagonist/protagonist of our story (depending on which side of the piracy debate you reside), is one of a growing population of movie pirates in Houston, taking full advantage of the MPAA's concerted efforts to stop bootlegging in other parts of the world, vying for his piece of the multibillion-dollar pie. He has a slightly different, yet equally passionate, take on the effects of piracy on the motion picture industry, invoking an antiestablishment defense.

"What do I think about it? I don't give a shit. We're a product of what we come from. You tell [somebody] they can't have shit for long enough, it's gonna end up to where we don't care how we get it; we just wanna get it. I think, I think bootleggin' is cool. I hate to say it, but it's true. Money gets to trickle down to people who really need it instead of the rich keep getting richer."

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