Movie Pirates

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

"[People] will call to check if I'm out." says Chris. Yeah, he's been here awhile.

On average, a movie pirate selling illicit movie goods out of the trunk of his car can make upwards of $700 a day, easily, according to the MPAA's Mike Robinson, a stat confirmed by Chris. "Usually Mondays through Wednesday gonna be slow boogie. You could make anywhere from $10 to $1,000 depending on who you are and how you get yours." In between customers, he gives a crash course in Pirate Economics, explaining how, as with any other business, there are always mitigating factors that must be taken into account for one to be successful.

"People get paid on Fridays, people get paid every other week, people get paid on the first and the fifteenth. So, you put that together and that lets you know how the market be. That's why the beginning of the week is slower. But let's just say Thursday through Saturday, Sunday even, you ain't gonna really make nothing less than a 500 spot if you just sitting around at the right place, and sky's the limit depending on how much product you can get. That's the reason I like it. If you a real hustler, you can get out here and make real money."

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.

All in all, 52 movies were sold in the hour and a half spent in the parking lot, for a total of $230. A slow night, to be sure, but at a rate of $153 an hour, it's not bad for a Tuesday.

Strip center parking lots, like those of beauty supply shops, video rental stores and grocers, are hotbeds for movie pirates because, according to Chris, "fast money finds fast money." Those types of places generate a lot of traffic, and the traffic that they do generate is already anticipating spending money. Remember: Somebody else's customer is your customer if you can reach them first.

Larger bootlegging operations, like the ones found in New York, California and, more pressingly, Asia, operate in rings to produce massive quantities of product. Several people will be responsible for securing the content, several others will be responsible for replicating the DVDs, several others will be responsible for packaging (which, with the help of professional printers, looks exactly like a store-bought DVD would) and the finished product will be sold to individual dealers.

In Texas — Houston, specifically — we're a little more laid-back with our piracy.

"Large-scale operations are not the kinds of things we are dealing with in Houston." says Lieutenant Otero of HPD. "One- or two-man operations are what we typically see here."

Even one- or two-man operations, however, can sell a significant number of pirated DVDs, and one place you're almost guaranteed to find these operations moving large quantities of illegal DVDs in Houston is flea markets.

Open-air flea markets, like Sunny Flea Market in north Houston, which routinely draws upwards of 30,000 people on a given weekend, are havens for movie pirates.

It's standard high-return Pirate ­Economics:

A ten-by-ten booth complete with one four-by-eight table rents for an average of $14 on Saturdays and $28 on Sundays. Add $3 to receive an electrical charge for the weekend (so you can power your TVs to play your pirated movies) and, if you're feeling really wild, add another $18 to secure a second table, and you're at a grand total of $63. Considering it costs 44 to 55 cents to produce a pirated DVD that will be sold for $5, Houston flea-­market pirates can easily average $2,500 in sales per day. It should take all of about eight minutes to recoup expenditures.

Assuming a flea-market pirate only operates two days a week, a conservative estimate of $2,500 a day would equal $260,000 a year. (Kevin Casey, MPAA's regional director of antipiracy, who is stationed in Dallas and oversees ­Houston-area piracy, believes the annual total may be somewhere closer to double that amount.) That's for one small-scale piracy operation. Sunny Flea Market alone turned up no fewer than two movie pirates, and there are more than 20 registered flea markets in Houston. In light of those statistics, Houston is still a relative blip on the piracy radar, currently drawing a less than aggressive antipiracy effort than those found in other places, although we are officially on the radar.

"You have to be able to make a distinction between the operations that are going on in China, where they are distributing millions of pirated DVDs, as opposed to the local flea-market issue." says Lieutenant Otero. "They are much more concerned with passing legislation and trade embargos on the national scale, but [the MPAA is] now starting to focus on cities in the U.S. like Houston or Chicago or New York."

The MPAA, which is saddled with the tedious responsibility of deciding whether or not to prosecute individual movie pirates, is more concerned with destroying confiscated DVDs when dealing with lower-level piracy. The likelihood that a typical Houston bootlegger will serve jail time is slim, and prison time even ­slimmer.

Ideally, the MPAA, NATO and other motion-picture establishments would like to eliminate piracy and its components altogether. They understand, though, that at the heart of it, bootleggers are playing with house money, risking very little downside to pursue a potentially massive upside. This harsh reality fosters the only sincere belief that movie pirates and those attempting to stop them share: An end to piracy is not likely to happen.

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