Federal authorities have opened an inquiry into how the New York Post obtained a bootlegged copy of Mel Gibson's controversial unreleased film "The Passion of Christ," three sources familiar with the matter said Thursday.
The Post said Monday that it had obtained a "rough-cut version of the film that we screened -- with temporary English subtitles, no credits and further editing changes likely." The newspaper said it held a private screening for a panel made up of a rabbi, a priest, a professor of early Christianity, a Post movie critic and a reader selected at random to garner their reactions.
New York Post spokeswoman Suzi Halpin could not be reached for comment late Thursday. The trade publication Daily Variety quoted a Post spokesman as saying: "A source provided us with the tape, no copies were made, and we have returned the tape to Mr. Gibson's representatives."
The FBI and the U.S. attorney's office would not confirm that an investigation has been launched. But the sources, inside and out of law enforcement, said authorities were looking into how the film was acquired without authorization.
A lawyer for Gibson said the director was considering filing a civil suit in the matter.
"Our biggest concern here is that a major media organization would become involved with pirates to concoct a news story to sell newspapers," George Hedges, an entertainment lawyer representing Gibson and his company, Icon Entertainment, said Thursday. "For someone to feel the license to do this is just outrageous."
The flap touches on two of Hollywood's hottest issues: escalating fears of movie piracy, and concerns and curiosity about "The Passion" itself, in which Gibson has invested more than $20 million of his own money.
Some who have seen the movie in early screenings have praised it, but it also has drawn widespread criticism for what some fear is its potential to fuel anti-Semitism.
The film about the last hours in Jesus Christ's life is set to be released nationwide Feb. 25 -- Ash Wednesday.
Adding an additional nuance to the dispute with the New York Post is the fact that the tabloid is part of the same corporate family -- Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. -- as 20th Century Fox, which with other major studios has been part of a coalition seeking to battle piracy.
News Corp. President Peter Chernin has been an outspoken voice among studio brass seeking to combat piracy through measures including the recent Motion Picture Assn. of America- sponsored ban on awards- season DVDs and videocassettes.
Chernin could not be reached for comment Thursday night.
Other studio executives were sympathetic to Gibson's fight with the tabloid.
"This is vigilante journalism," said Paramount Pictures Chief Operating Officer Robert Friedman. "They are promoting chaos. To get anybody's movies, books or articles in a formative stage and steal it to review it is unconscionable."
The inquiry into how the Post got the tape comes as authorities are increasingly concerned about copyright infringements affecting Hollywood and other industries.
"Over the last couple of years the MPAA and Hollywood in general have been increasingly pressuring authorities to crack down on piracy," one federal law enforcement official said late Thursday.
Although such pressure has been exerted by tobacco, music and other industries, authorities say the consequences of product pirating and theft in Hollywood are especially troubling given the billions of dollars at stake for business and the resulting millions of dollars in tax revenue for government.
"We take these kinds of cases very seriously," said another federal law enforcement official. Other possible film piracies or thefts may be involved in the current investigation, the official added.
Already several people have been prosecuted for piracy, including a New York man who pleaded guilty to posting a pirated, unfinished version of "The Hulk" on the Internet last summer.