Hollywood’s all-out war against movie piracy is turning into a big-budget bomb, with illegal copies of virtually every new release -- and even some films that have yet to debut in theaters -- turning up on the Internet.
Sophisticated computer users currently can download pirated versions of titles ranging from “Bad Santa” to “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” While some of the versions are crude copies made by camcorders aimed at theater screens, a surprising number are nearly pristine transfers.
The abundance of bootlegs arrives just as the movie studios have launched their most aggressive campaign yet to protect their business from the rampant downloading that has plagued the record industry. As part of this antipiracy initiative, the studios have done everything from banning the distribution of free DVDs to awards voters to stationing security guards equipped with night-vision goggles inside Hollywood premieres to spot camcorder users.
The steps may have made some thievery more difficult, but overall, piracy appears to be up from previous years, when an avalanche of year-end awards DVDs and videos, or “screeners” as they are called, flooded the entertainment and media communities. In fact, the new security measures seem only to have emboldened some pirates.
The Motion Picture Assn. of America says that last year it found at least 163,000 Web sites offering pirated movies. The number is likely to go up to 200,000 sites by the end of the year, said Tom Temple, the association’s director of worldwide Internet enforcement.
A major source of movies online is an underground network of groups that specialize in bootlegging films, piracy experts say. These “ripping crews” -- which recruit members around the world to obtain, edit, transfer and store films -- compete with each other to be the first to obtain a movie, the experts say. They frequently are assisted by people connected to the movie industry, whose numbers include cinema employees, workers at post-production houses and friends of Academy members.
Pirates usually copy a movie first by sneaking a digital camcorder into a movie theater, sometimes the very auditorium in which antipiracy public service announcements have just played before the feature attraction. These copies yield something less than DVD-quality results. After this version appears online, crews will continue to compete to deliver a true DVD-quality version before it is officially released to video stores.
Piracy-monitoring firms say the advancing technology of digital camcorders is yielding dramatic improvements in the earliest versions of pirated movies. Although these efforts vary, the best ones come close to the picture and sound quality of DVDs.
Mark Ishikawa, the chief executive of BayTSP, a Los Gatos firm that helps studios combat online piracy, said, “We have seen some copies of ‘Finding Nemo’ that look like they were DVDs, yet after forensics we determined they were camcorders.” Said another antipiracy expert who asked not to be identified: “The quality of non-DVD screeners has increased so much in the past year, the DVD screener ban is too little, too late.”
The crews store films on powerful computers connected to the Internet but not accessible to the public. But their movies quickly trickle down to places open to the Internet savvy, such as Internet chat rooms and news groups. They take pains to hide their identities and locations, and so far have remained outside the reach of federal enforcers and studio lawyers. The Justice Department has struck only a glancing blow against this type of piracy, prosecuting members of several so-called “warez” groups, loose confederations of online partners who concentrate on copying computer software and games.
Nevertheless, government agencies are paying attention. The FBI began investigating the unauthorized release to the New York Post of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” two weeks ago; by the time that probe began, federal authorities already had launched a broader investigation into the unauthorized copying of numerous other first-run films, according to sources.
Adding to the magnitude of the problem is the fact that some of these bootleg copies are pirated from inside the entertainment industry itself.
Piracy from such an array of sources means that there now are more Internet movie offerings than at the world’s largest megaplex. Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 1" is available in two versions, an American/European edition (with portions in black and white) and one in Japanese (all in color). Other titles available include “The Rundown,” “Timeline,” “21 Grams,” “The Missing,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “Thirteen” and “Pieces of April.”
The box-office hit “Elf” was available four days before its Nov. 7 release in theaters, taken from a digital camcorder recording made in a theater, with the sound most likely recorded from a cinema seat audio jack used by hearing-impaired moviegoers. Films not yet in theaters, including “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “Monsieur Ibrahim,” were taken from DVD screeners sent out in advance of the films’ release.
As part of the campaign against movie piracy, the MPAA on Sept. 30 banned the seven major studios and their specialty film divisions from sending out free movies to anyone but the 5,800 Academy Awards voters. Oscar voters, furthermore, can only receive specially marked videocassettes and not DVDs, which provide better masters for bootlegs. The move infuriated the makers of lower-budget movies and less conventional fare, who feared the true motive for the ban was to bring Oscar attention back to big studio releases.
Movies from independent companies that are not part of the MPAA are turning up in a number of Internet sites. DVD copies of all of the movies being pushed for awards consideration by Lions Gate Films, for example, are available illegally online. Lions Gate began sending out screeners to an array of awards voters two weeks ago. The studio declined comment Wednesday.
The motion picture association’s Temple said the main point of the ban was to delay the arrival of high-quality copies of movies online as long as possible. It’s too early to tell the impact of the new rules, he said, because the studios have just started sending out screeners. But a few copies of DVD and VHS screeners have started to pop up online; for example, a VHS copy of United Artists’ “Pieces of April” hit the Net on Thanksgiving.
The piracy expert who asked not to be named said the MPAA’s action “has of course caused a shortage of real, true DVD screeners of movies” online. “But it doesn’t matter because there are copies out there that are good enough.... Some of them even exceed the quality of VHS screeners.”
Several other experts agreed that the new rules have had absolutely no effect on the availability of movies online.
“There’s no difference,” said Kevin Moylan, senior vice president of the antipiracy firm Vidius Inc. of Beverly Hills. “The thing to remember is that all it takes is one copy. So even an authorized screener, one of them is going to perpetrate a leak.”
The MPAA ban is now at the center of a lawsuit in New York, where on Wednesday a federal judge heard a full day of testimony on a challenge by a group of independent filmmakers to the screener edict. MPAA President Jack Valenti testified that the prohibitions were necessary to combat the illegal copying and sale of videotapes and DVDs.
But two independent film producers who are among the plaintiffs in the case testified that the distribution of screeners is essential to their strategy of marketing independent films based on good reviews, word of mouth, mentions on critics’ Top 10 lists and, eventually, awards nominations.
“The hardest thing with my movies is getting people to see them.... [It’s] not that people would want to steal them,” said producer Ted Hope, who has prize aspirations for two films this year, “American Splendor” and “21 Grams.”
He and fellow indie producer Jeff Levy-Hinte, who has similar hopes for his film “Thirteen,” told the judge that the major studios would have a big advantage if lower-budget films like theirs cannot send thousands of copies to opinion-makers and voters who may never see the works in theaters.
The organization’s vice president supervising its anti- piracy efforts, former FBI agent Kenneth Jacobson, later told the judge that the film studios were trying to avoid what happened in the music industry, in which illegal Internet downloading is widely seen as cutting sharply into sales.
Authorities around the world already have seized “35 million [illegally copied movies] so far this year,” Jacobson testified, adding that film piracy has become so rampant in countries such as China, Russia and Pakistan that the legal markets there have all but evaporated.
Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, who has used promotion campaigns to gain multiple Oscars for films such as “Shakespeare in Love,” submitted a declaration stating that “a successful awards season can make the difference between a movie grossing $5 million at the box office and a movie grossing $20 million.”
U.S. District Judge Michael B. Mukasey said he will rule Friday whether to grant a temporary restraining order barring the MPAA from carrying out the ban.
The MPAA and California law enforcement officials plan to announce today how they will enforce a new state law barring the illegal recording of motion pictures in movie theaters. Similar federal legislation has been proposed.
Times staff writers Greg Krikorian and Patrick Day in Los Angeles and Paul Lieberman in New York contributed to this report.