The security officer seen scanning the crowd with night vision binoculars at last week's media screening of Warner Bros.' "Dreamcatcher" wasn't looking for pockets of critical resistance.
He was testing new anti-piracy measures aimed squarely at Hollywood's pre-release promotional machinery.
Warner and the other studios are working closely with their trade group, the Motion Picture Assn. of America, to search for potential high-tech film thieves among the thousands of reporters, critics and assorted hangers-on who populate the movie industry's busy screening circuit. The MPAA is devising official anti-piracy guidelines, referred to as "best practices recommendations," for the studios.
People who attended at least two recent Warner screenings -- including the one on March 18 for "Dreamcatcher" at the ArcLight Hollywood theater -- said night-vision-equipped security guards walked the darkened aisles looking for evidence of illicit taping.
Media members and their guests were told to leave cell phones, pagers and other electronic devices outside the theater. People were then scanned with an electronic wand to ensure compliance.
A representative of the AOL Time Warner Inc.-owned studio warned that anyone lifting images would be "prosecuted to the full extent of the law," according to one person who attended.
"Piracy prevention is a top priority for us, and we are instituting numerous, across-the-board deterrents," said Warner Bros. spokeswoman Barbara Brogliatti.
An executive with News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox said that in the last couple of weeks the studio banned cell phones at screenings and already had been successful using night vision gear to catch pirates.
In January, Fox nabbed a guestusing a camcorder to record its big action movie "Daredevil" at a media screening.
Fox executives said they called authorities, but declined to say whether an arrest was made.
"We take this incredibly seriously, and we have instituted a variety of measures at screenings, including checking the projection booths," said Jeffrey Godsick, Fox studio's executive vice president of marketing.
All of the top Hollywood studios have designated anti-piracy executives who work in tandem with the MPAA in battling movie piracy -- a problem that has grown worse in recent years with the ease of digital duplication.
"We know that these pre-theatrical word-of-mouth, marketing research and media screenings are a source of piracy," said MPAA spokeswoman Marta Grutka.
Ken Jacobsen, the MPAA's senior vice president and director of worldwide anti-piracy, said the trade group can account for 28 pirated movies since May that surfaced before their theatrical release in the U.S.
"All were camcorded copies which would have occurred at some type of screening," Jacobsen said.
Sources said the copied movies included "The Hours," co-produced by Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Co.'s Miramax Films, and "Bulletproof Monk," which is scheduled for an April release by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.
Queried about the cell phone ban, experts said it was difficult to see how film images could be stolen with the current generation of picture transmission phones, although barring the devices might make it more difficult for pirates to conceal a potentially more troublesome digital camcorder.
"I don't know of any phone that would have the resolution to get clean images," said Todd Wilder, a spokesman for Fremont, Calif.-based video phone maker Vialta Inc.
Vialta's Beamer, which was included in this year's gift baskets for Oscar nominees and presenters, requires a land line to function, Wilder said.