A venue for film theft?

Times Staff Writer

The Celestial Cinema is a theater like no other. The central venue at the recently concluded Maui Film Festival is outdoors, and patrons sit on thick grass (it's on a Wailea golf course) to see films projected on a giant screen under a star-filled sky. Each night's festival showing is preceded by an authentic hula dance and a quick astronomy lesson.

It's the perfect place, in other words, to watch an entertaining comedy like "Little Miss Sunshine," and for a few days last month, Maui festival organizers planned on doing just that.

But Fox Searchlight, the film's distributor, pulled the plug.

The very things that make the open-air Celestial Cinema such a special moviegoing setting also expose it to the possibility of piracy -- with about 3,000 film buffs carrying stacks of lawn chairs and blankets into the evening showings, there's no sure way for security officers to search everyone and everything. What's more, the venue is so sprawling that guards can't really use night-vision goggles to police the audience and monitor any illegal videotaping or illicit use of camera phones.

Because of that, Fox Searchlight asked that "Little Miss Sunshine" be moved out of a prominent Saturday night showing at the Celestial Cinema and into a much smaller indoor venue, where it was seen by only a handful of people.

Hollywood has scoured the globe in search of film thieves, finding them in Los Angeles alleys and Chinese tenements. Although the Motion Picture Assn. of America says it knows of no instances of piracy occurring at a film festival, studios nevertheless have been clamping down on these nearly weekly events, sometimes going so far as to require that programmers watch films submitted for festival consideration with a security guard always nearby.

"I've had security guards come to my home theater" says Bill Pence, co-director of the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. Festival piracy, he says, "is an issue. And we take it very seriously."

The MPAA estimates that piracy costs the U.S. entertainment industry $3.5 billion a year. The leading film festivals offer potential pirates tempting fruit. Those festivals (Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, Telluride, Berlin, Venice) tend to show acclaimed films months before their theatrical premieres. Cellphones are rarely confiscated at festival doors; in fact, scores of Sundance Film Festival attendees talk and send e-mails on their mobile devices during screenings. Finally, festival venues are usually run by volunteers, people with little expertise in security issues.

Barry Rivers, who runs the 7-year-old Maui festival with his wife, Stella, says that although he was disappointed by Fox's decision, he appreciates the gravity of the issue.

"I see it as a very realistic and understandable concern on the part of the studios," Barry Rivers said. Still, he says of his centerpiece venue, "It's not as risky as showing a movie outdoors in Beijing."

For the outside festival screening, Fox Searchlight substituted its film "Thank You for Smoking," but it wasn't quite the same, as "Smoking" had already been released (in April), and "Little Miss Sunshine" doesn't debut until July 26.

"Searchlight is constantly evaluating the most effective ways to work with the festivals and protect our films from piracy," the studio said in a statement. "In the case of the Maui Film Festival, we thought it would be wiser to move 'Little Miss Sunshine' to a more controllable venue."

For a Celestial Cinema screening of Sony's "Monster House," the festival held the cellphones of about 100 attendees (including that of Rivers' wife). Nevertheless, dozens of festivalgoers could be seen using their cellphones before the start of the movie. There were no reported piracy incidents.

"Monster House" producer Steve Starkey says he and Sony weighed the possibility of piracy at an outdoor venue against the promotional value of showing the PG-rated haunted-house film to thousands of people. As opposed to Fox Searchlight, they decided to go for it.

"You just have to go into these screenings with your eyes open and hope for the best," Starkey said. "You always think of the purity of the film festival and [that] there's where you want to be. But maybe that's naive. It would be a tragedy if [festival piracy] becomes a real concern."

One very real issue for studios is the pre-festival selection process, when programmers watch thousands of early (and sometimes unfinished) copies of films. Some companies won't dare ship DVD copies of their new films via FedEx or UPS (don't even mention the U.S. Postal Service). Rather, they have the films hand-delivered, even if that means sending someone in a plane across the country to do nothing more than hand a DVD to a programmer, wait while the movie is seen and grab the next flight home.

Rachel Rosen, director of programming for the just-concluded Los Angeles Film Festival, acknowledged that "awareness of piracy in the climate has changed" the festival experience for everyday movie buffs. In fact, a few studios have balked at screening their movies at the L.A. festival's outdoor venue, the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre.

It remains to be seen whether festivals will continue to ramp up security, and possibly copy Telluride's zero-tolerance cellphone policy. (Festival patrons unlucky enough to have their phones ring during a movie are not only reprimanded but also escorted out of the theater.) "Our policy about electronic devices is almost as strict as airplanes'," Pence says. "We are very tough on it."

But what if Sundance and other festivals started barring agents, acquisitions executives and producers from bringing their cellphones into screenings? Would films play to just 20 people?

"The general public is happy enough to sit through a screening without their BlackBerrys," says Lionsgate's Tom Ortenberg. "If forced to, the industry will do the same."

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