As CEO of one of L.A.'s few prop companies that prints dummy currency for the movies, Gregg H. Bilson Jr. walks a fine line between counterfeiting laws and producers' demands for the most realistic bills possible.
But when the auteurs of a big action flick recently blew up about $1 billion worth of Bilson's fake bucks--sending them fluttering into the hands of folks who later passed them--the Secret Service came calling, ordering Bilson to stop making the phony lucre and send a recall letter to every production company that bought the stuff because his bills looked too real.
With Bilson's main competitor afraid to print more fake cash after a similar federal confiscation last year, local prop masters now say the funny money supply is drying up, inflating concerns about on-screen realism and the possibility that filmmakers will turn to less reputable sources that are more difficult to monitor.
"It's unfortunate," Bilson said. "This is yet another reason for people to say, 'Well, we're going to take our production to Canada.' " Even so, the Secret Service--which, in addition to protecting the president, safeguards the nation's money supply--is taking no chances with the main manufacturers of movie cash: Bilson's Independent Studio Services Inc., and Earl Hays Press, both in Sun Valley. The feds offer no apologies for confiscations of prop bills that have cost the two companies tens of thousands of real dollars.
"They thought they'd followed the rules," said Chuck Ortman, an assistant special agent in the Secret Service's Los Angeles office. "In reality, the product they were producing was just too close to genuine . . . [and] notes were successfully passed."
The authentic-size bills seized by agents are illegal, authorities say, because federal law requires that reproductions be 75% or smaller, or 150% or larger than the size of real bills. If colors other than black and white are used, only one-sided copies may be made, and negatives, plates or disks of the bills must be destroyed after use.
But bills meeting those standards look like "play money" on the screen, and sophisticated audiences demand realism, said Pam Elyea, co-owner of History for Hire, a North Hollywood prop house.
"The props our businesses rent out are more realistic-looking than they used to be," Elyea said. "But the more realistic they look, be it fake money or weapons, the easier it is for the general public to be confused with the real thing and the more problems that it poses."
Cody Cluff, who heads the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., said run-ins with law enforcement involving props typically involve the use of guns, city seals and police badges.
"Law enforcement and legislators have to be aware of the industry's need for realistic-looking props," Cluff said. "On the flip side, it would behoove Hollywood to understand that blowing up $1 billion worth of fake money might not be a wise decision."
Most movie money has easy-to-spot deficiencies. The bust of Benjamin Franklin may be swapped for an anonymous character closer to David Crosby, while "In God We Trust" is often substituted by "For Motion Picture Use Only."
Those giveaways did not stop people in Las Vegas from scooping up the ISS-produced money fluttering around after the explosion scene for the film "Rush Hour 2," Bilson said. New Line Cinema spokesman Steve Elzer said the movie's producers were "cooperating fully" with the government's investigation of the incident.
Ortman said 19 intact bills have since been passed in the Las Vegas and Los Angeles areas, with one attempt reported in Minneapolis. The Secret Service slapped the company with a cease-and-desist order in March, barring further production of the bills. ISS was also ordered to collect any similar outstanding bills, so Bilson sent registered letters to all of his clients asking for their return. Agents, who seized more than $180 million of the money in Las Vegas, have since taken $22 million in fake cash from ISS.
The most recent tensions between printers and the government began about 18 months ago, when members of a heavy metal band threw a large amount of Hays-produced money to a crowd at a Florida video shoot, resulting in the confiscation of the company's entire stock, said Hays co-owner Ralph Hernandez Sr.
About six months later, the Secret Service came knocking again after one of the industry's oldest prop houses, Ellis Props & Graphics, put a stash of fake Hays bills up for sale on the Internet, Hernandez said.
Federal officials downplay the crackdowns. Movie money is in many ways the least of the agency's worries in Los Angeles County, where about $100,000 in counterfeit bills is passed each week, making it one of the most active markets in the country.
"It seems every couple of years this [movie] money shows up," Ortman said. "They'll even put 'For motion picture use only' on it. But son of a gun, if it's green and it says '20' on it, somebody will take it."
With the rise of desktop publishing, prop printers say they're worried that targeting them could make prospective buyers look elsewhere, to less reputable companies.
Bilson underscored the point by tossing on his desk a bag of nearly flawless $50 and $100 bills manufactured by a New York company but mistakenly returned to him by a prop master.
"This is very illegal," Bilson said of the bills, which upon closer inspection were printed as 50s on one side and 100s on the other. While the Secret Service remains vigilant, counterfeiting laws have become less stringent.
All reproductions of U.S. currency were banned in the Civil War era, but starting in 1958, certain black-and-white illustrations were permitted "for philatelic, numismatic, educational . . . or newsworthy purposes."
Twenty-three years later, Time Inc. challenged the law when the Treasury Department objected to a Sports Illustrated cover that showed dollar bills stuffed in a basketball net.
In a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Regan vs. Time Inc., the justices struck down provisions that required the government to review the educational value or newsworthiness of currency reproductions, but upheld limitations on size and color. In 1992, however, federal law was changed to allow some color reproductions.
Modern movie-money printing--and its attendant problems--began in the mid-1960s. Before then, Hernandez said, producers did not work too hard at realism because the laws were so strict.
"If you look at any films from the early '60s back, . . . you couldn't use anything that really looked like money," Hernandez said.
That changed with the 1965 film "The Cincinnati Kid." The story of an up-and-coming poker player required numerous close-ups of '30s-era U.S. currency, which was difficult to come by in large quantities.
Hays developed a reliable fake that got the Secret Service's OK, Hernandez said. But the money "wound up being passed all over the world" after the movie's extras got hold of it, he said.
For now, ISS is focusing on creative solutions. Bilson developed--with Secret Service approval--a $2.6 million "brick" of shrink-wrapped fake cash for the remake of "Ocean's Eleven." At first glance, it appears to be a real stack of bills from the U.S. Treasury. But the dummy bills are printed on one side on heavy cardboard, with white paper bands obscuring the absence of a presidential portrait.
In the meantime, he said, producers and directors "need to know that when we say we can't do the money, we're not trying to be difficult. We just can't break the law."