Movie Pirates

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

The MPAA works fervently, on a major and a minor scale, to curtail what appears to be the exponential growth of piracy. Movies are being produced with electronic watermarks, tiny dots specifically arranged in the frame of a movie that essentially act as fingerprints for movie theaters, allowing antipiracy agencies to trace confiscated counterfeit DVDs to their original pirated source locations. Many theaters have even incorporated an in-house bootlegger bounty, offering a reward of up to $500 to any employee for the identification of people recording movies while in a theater. Sneak preview screenings, especially, like the one recently shown for Lionsgate's new action heist The Bank Job, have thoroughly increased piracy stopgaps — cell phones were not allowed in, bags were checked, antipiracy statements were read prior to the screening and security guards were present throughout the entire showing. In a follow-up call, though, Lionsgate refused to comment on its security ­measures.

Movie pirates, though, like any good villain, have evolved to stay just out of the reach of the motion picture industry; their techniques are becoming more sophisticated. Rudimentary copies of footage shot with shoddy equipment are no longer the norm. Children are used to smuggle pirating equipment into theaters. Spyware pinhole cameras are employed, while harnesses are strapped to bodies to steady video shots. Theater employees are bribed to allow access to projection booths. Pirates are using cameras that can wirelessly beam content to hard drives in other locations. All the while, the motion picture industry fights to stay within striking distance of the pirates, working with local and federal law-enforcement ­agencies.

"Occasionally we will work with the FBI when a piracy group has struck a number of times," says Patrick Corcoran, director of media operations for the National Association of Theatre Owners. "Sometimes we'll set up stings and be there just waiting for them. We may use night-vision goggles, watching from the projection booth ourselves or from behind the screen to see camcorders, but I don't want to give too much of what we do away."

A camcorder, a digital voice recorder and a pile of blank DVDS are all it takes to go into business.
Shea Serrano
A camcorder, a digital voice recorder and a pile of blank DVDS are all it takes to go into business.
Electronic watermarks allow antipiracy agencies to trace counterfeit movies to their original pirated source.
Photo courtesy MPAA
Electronic watermarks allow antipiracy agencies to trace counterfeit movies to their original pirated source.

Piracy's effects stretch far beyond the Spielbergs and Clooneys; the industry's financial losses translate into lost jobs at the lowest levels of the multibillion-dollar moviemaking business, the MPAA's Robinson says. But the thought of those lost wages and jobs apparently can't compete with a three-for-$10 deal on films still in the theaters.

"I buy those movies because they're cheaper and quicker," says one stay-at-home mom of three kids. "I can get three movies for $10 from the guy at the washateria, or I can spend $70 and my whole afternoon at the movies."

A popular argument indeed. But what of the losses suffered by the motion picture industry?

"I don't really think about it, I guess." she says. "I'm just happy my kids get to see the movies they like. They wouldn't get to see them if I didn't buy them from him." Her kids were most recently fortunate enough to see Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, Wrong Turn 2 and The ­Orphanage.

The motion picture industry isn't accepting pricing qualms as an excuse, and neither is NATO's Corcoran. As of 2007, an average movie ticket cost $6.82. Adjusted for inflation, an average movie ticket in 1977 cost $7.57 (1977 price without inflation: $2.23). The motion picture industry feels impatience and unawareness are at the root of the public's apathy towards piracy.

"If people are concerned with the ticket prices being too high, all they have to do is wait a little bit," says Corcoran. "It'd be great to get people into the theaters as much as possible, but like anything else, people have to make choices. Buying illegal goods is not a valid choice."

Step 2 of the movie bootlegging process smells an awful lot like marijuana. Rather, the one-bedroom apartment where Step 2 takes place smells an awful lot like ­marijuana.

Inside, the apartment looks like any other guy's place — the walls are nearly bare save for a couple of old promotional party flyers tacked up and a ­plastic-framed Above The Rim movie poster hanging in the living room; several magazines containing women in compromising positions are scattered on the floor of the restroom. Nowhere inside is it particularly messy, but, like most apartments, the entire place feels dirty; and, oh yeah, there's about $3,500 worth of CD/DVD-burning electronic equipment in the bedroom.

That doesn't include the near $40-$50 in nickels and pennies on the bedroom floor. What's with all the change on the floor? "Scrooge McDuck," Chris says. What? "You ever seen that cartoon DuckTales?" Uh, yeah. "Scrooge McDuck" he says again, eyebrows raised this time, head nodding slowly, condescending gaze on his face. Oh, yes, of course, Scrooge McDuck.

The whole reproduction process is quite simple, really. "It's like this," Chris begins. "See, we just hook [the camcorder] up to the computer and [input the] video we took." The sound of whizzing bullets and police sirens is noticeably absent from the equation. "Then we run the audio from [the digital voice recorder] through [a converter] and into the computer so we can lay it over the video. After we finish that, we check it and then we burn it to a DVD." Still no FBI agents kicking in the front door or antipiracy officers rappelling down from the roof and crashing in through the windows. "That's what's up," he says.

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