The reel pirates of Hollywood

Guys sneaking camcorders into theaters are the cliché, but the most damaging theft is inside Hollywood.

Brandon Langley may have been just a projectionist in a suburban Atlanta multiplex, but this past week, the amateur "filmmaker" got his very own industry close-up.

Not for his handiwork on-screen, but behind the scenes.

The 21-year-old former movie theater employee is the latest and one of a small but growing number of industry "insiders" to be prosecuted for attempting to illegal copy a major feature film. On Nov. 5, Georgia prosecutors allege, he was caught recording "Matrix Revolutions" from the safety of his projection booth, capturing a high-quality soundtrack by plugging directly into the theater's sound system.

"We're hoping to use this as a case to show that piracy is against the law," says J. Tom Morgan, who was the DeKalb County district attorney at the time. He now helps fight piracy for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). "Many people seem to think, 'Why bother prosecute a case like this?' But the ramifications are really big, starting with the potential loss of income to the theater owners to everyone involved in the movie industry."

According to the MPAA, the low-quality camcorder-in-a-popcorn-box DVD, with such value-added extras as the silhouettes of people headed to the concession stand, accounts for some 90 percent of the illegal products spread out on urban sidewalk blankets. But 77 percent of the less available, but far more desirable, high-quality DVDs come from industry insiders, according to a recent AT&T Labs study. The prosecution of Mr. Langley, say industry officials, is intended to send a clear signal: The film industry is serious about stopping illegal copying, whatever the source.

"This affects the movie industry from the highest levels down to the guy who sells popcorn or the set painter," says John Malcolm, MPAA director of worldwide piracy operations. "If people can't get a reasonable return they'll stop making movies, and that's a shame, because the first to go will be the risky, edgier films."

Film studio insiders say they have watched and learned from the music industry. Faced with $3.5 billion in DVD piracy losses this year - with that number expected to nearly double next year - Fox Entertainment president Peter Chernin told his staff, "you'd have to be brain dead to ignore what piracy did to [the music industry]."

The industries have differences, most notably the size of the digital file: three minutes of sound versus 90-plus of video and sound. But the same global bootlegging network fuels both. Mass production houses, concentrated in Asia, can churn out thousands of DVDs from one master. A single upload makes a digital copy available to anyone with a high-speed computer connection. MPAA officials say losses from Internet downloading nearly equal the hit from illegal DVD sales.

But identifying the problem is the easy part, say those on the front lines.

Many theater owners maintain that the insider leakage is more serious than the MPAA is willing to admit. "The DVDs they need to worry about are not coming from the guy with a camcorder in the movie theater," says James McKenna, a theater owner for 54 years until his retirement this past fall. His staff nabbed Langley in one of his Georgia theaters, after a manager allegedly found pirating equipment belonging to Langley.

"People want to buy good-quality films, and insiders are the only ones who can really provide that," he says. "It's usually someone inside in need of some extra money who's willing to do this."

Many industry insiders agree, but are reluctant to discuss it on the record.

A film editor who asked to remain anonymous says that during the course of making a film, his office produces dozens of copies in various stages of completion.

"I can flip the original in my DVD copier right at my edit station, burn a bunch of copies from that day's work, and send them off," he says. "There's no way to track them, and there sure ... isn't any extra security around them. They could go anywhere, to anyone."

A producer who also asked to remain nameless adds that there are copies of movies freely floating around. "Once you're involved with a film, of course there are going to be copies available," she says. "It's unavoidable."

Brian Lakamp, senior vice president of technology for Sony Pictures, points to the additional industry outlets for high-quality originals, such as the teams who cut the film trailers, and says, "it has to be contained. I won't have a job if it's not."

In the past year, studios say they have stepped up efforts to tighten this sort of internal seepage. Many studios now require recipients to sign nonrelease papers before receiving early screeners.

"We've done a good job of controlling prerelease leakage," says Jerry Pierce, Universal's senior vice president of technology. "However, we [still] lose 100 percent of theatrical releases to pirates."

This position, say theater owners, means that the buck stops at the popcorn stand. "We're faced with the question of how to stop it and really make a difference," says Michael Norris, president of Loews Cineplex Entertainment. The nationwide theater chain has created an instructional video for its theater owners, loaded with tips and tricks for foiling the pirate/patron. "We're trying to train our employees and management on how to detect someone who might be doing this," he says.

The video, which was shown at the annual theater owners ShoWest convention in Las Vegas in March, details how to stand in front of a camera on a tripod in order to ruin the copy of the film, but cautions employees not to be confrontational. It also has some laughable touches, such as a shifty, dark-haired man who sidles in with the pointy legs of a tripod protruding from the edges of his coat.

But without question, the tactic that left more than a few theater owners rolling in the aisles was the latest in 21st-century technology designed to fight digital piracy: night-vision goggles. "Not in my theater or any theater I know," says McKenna. "I've talked to people in the circuit enough to know that nobody who runs a theater is going to send someone in with green goggles into an auditorium."

It's tough enough to lure customers into the theater without scaring them half to death, he adds.

"It just gets silly when people start saying we're going to run [our] people around auditoriums," he says. "It's hard enough to make people [customers] happy without that."

Theater owners have begun pressing studios to clean up their own houses. "We're doing it legislatively and we're educating our folks in the theater business," says John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. "We expect the studios to be serious about it as well."

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