Movie Pirates

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

He removes the original burned DVD from the computer and inserts it into a DVD burner tower. A burner tower is basically a DVD burner like that found on any home computer, except it normally operates as a separate, freestanding unit and is capable of producing many more copies per burning. For example, this particular burner tower is a 1 to 7, meaning it will produce seven copies of an original disk at a time, instead of just one. More expensive burner towers can be purchased operating at a rate of 1 to 20, easily producing 300-plus copies in six to eight minutes, and will typically come with free printers and DVD media — sort of a bootlegging starter kit, if you will. "You can get these [burners] anywhere, but sometimes the places that make the copies of CDs (like Church Audio/Video Supply) will sell old ones for cheap," says Chris. ("Cheap" is a relative term; the two models he owns — which, as Chris points out several times, are not illegal to own — totaled somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,500.) The tower's hum is barely audible as it writes the DVDs, making it easy to forget this is a crime.

Five minutes later he has seven copies of Cloverfield. He empties the tower, scribbling the title of the movie on each and sliding them into their own white paper sleeves, leaving only the original disk in the first tower, and placing a freshly burned DVD into the second burner tower. "A lot of times," he says, as he loads the second tower with blank DVDs, "I just pick up a copy of whatever [movies] I need to copy from somewhere else and then burn my own copies. Then I ain't gotta sit in the movie theater." Burn, remove, package, repeat. Burn, remove, package, repeat.

Asked if he knows other bootleggers, Chris keeps working. "Nah, I don't know them guys. I just stop by the beauty shop down the street, or sometimes they be coming in the barbershop. Them mutha­fuckas are everywhere." Burn, remove, package, repeat. Burn, remove, package, repeat. Thirty minutes later he has, among others, more than 50 hard copies of a movie that opened yesterday. On to Step 3 of the bootlegging process, which might also be titled "This Ain't No Job For Punks."

Open-air flea markets throughout Houston offer a wide range...
Photos by Shea Serrano
Open-air flea markets throughout Houston offer a wide range...
...of counterfeit DVDs.
Photos by Shea Serrano
...of counterfeit DVDs.

Sitting in the parking lot of a beauty supply shop on the northside of town with a trunk full of illegally burned DVDs and CDs is not for the faint of heart. Fundamentally, it's the same as sitting in the parking lot of a beauty shop on the northside of town without a trunk full of DVDs and CDs, but that one "tiny" difference is proving to be, well, uncomfortable.

"Relax." Chris says, the trunk full of contraband occupying about as much of his attention as the rising national deficit or Britney Spears's sudden British accent — which is to say, not very much.

The contraband in question is somewhere in the neighborhood of 300-400 illegally copied DVDs, most of which are movies still found in theaters — The Bucket List, First Sunday, Cloverfield, How She Move and I Am Legend, to name just a few. Current prices for the pirated DVDs are set at the street standard, $5 each, three for $10 or six for $20. (CDs are $3 each, four for $10 or eight for $20.) Chris is waiting for customers.

A stranger approaches Chris's burgundy sedan.

"What's up, cat? Whaddya need?" asks Chris.

"You got that Great Debaters or One Missed Call? And National Treasure 2?" asks the stranger.

"Yeah, you want all three?"


Chris fingers through two of the three shoe boxes filled with DVDs, alphabetically organized, in the trunk of his car and digs out the three movies.

"Why don't you go on and get three more, square it a $20. I got that new ­Cloverfield," bargains Chris.

"Nah, that's good."

Money and movies change hands. Right there. In the parking lot. In the open. In the dying sunlight. For the world to see and that's that. So goes the next hour and a half of that Tuesday night. Some people, several of whom are weekly regulars, pull up right next to Chris's car and ask for specific movies or CDs. Others ask what he's got, and, depending on what's requested, he hands them a handwritten list of either movies or CDs. None of the patrons, according to Chris's finely tuned undercover cop detector, are police.

The trick for the pirates is for people to know where to find them without people knowing where to find them. "When people begin to notice a pattern of someone selling movies out of the trunk of their car, at a bowling alley or parking lot, for instance," says Lieutenant Michael Otero of the HPD Major Offenders Division, "that's when an anonymous tip is most likely to come in and we can act."

Given the esoteric nature of piracy, anonymous tips are hardly an everyday occurrence. Chris, like many other pirates, has taken advantage of society's fleeting conscience, and has been stationed outside of one specific establishment long enough to become a pseudoemployee of it. At one point in the evening, an actual employee pokes her head out of the store's entrance, cordless phone up to her ear, gives a What's up? nod of the head to Chris, then responds into the phone, "Uh-huh, he here."

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