‘Spider-Man 3’s’ first conquest: film pirates

Times Staff Writer

The Paris premiere for “Spider-Man 3” was a hot-ticket blowout. Stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were on hand for the late April screening, as were throngs of paparazzi. Once the movie began, the real fireworks started when Sony Pictures security guards spotted a premiere guest secretly recording the movie.

Even though the guest said that only one scene was taped, Sony wasn’t taking any chances. With actions that included urging some Canadian theaters to patrol their “Spider-Man” auditoriums with night-vision goggles and splitting up film cans sent to theaters in piracy havens such as China, Russia, Poland and Hungary, Sony launched an especially aggressive campaign to keep its expensive sequel off the black market ahead of the film’s worldwide release this week.

Sony’s multimillion-dollar security plan seems to have worked. Although the studio admits that bootleg copies of “Spider-Man 3” could be available for sale and download as early as this weekend, the studio appears to have blocked the release of any illegal copies before the film landed in theaters. “Spider-Man 3” DVDs that turned up on Chinese streets in late April proved to be pirated copies of “Spider-Man 2” in boxes decorated with “Spider-Man 3” artwork.


In part because unlawful versions were unavailable, “Spider-Man 3” has broken a number of overseas box-office marks, topping single-day records held by the first two Peter Parker films. “No question about it, no question about it,” that the anti-piracy campaign augmented overseas ticket receipts, said Jeff Blake, Sony’s head of worldwide marketing and distribution.

Sony said the sequel set new sales marks Tuesday in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. When the film opened in some European markets Wednesday, it generated huge returns in France and Italy.

“It’s really important that there not be pirated copies before a movie opens,” said John Malcolm, director of the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s worldwide anti-piracy operations. “Because if there is, there’s something else out there competing for the public’s attention.”

Sony’s anti-piracy efforts on “Spider-Man 3” had four main prongs. First, the studio confiscated camera phones and patrolled theaters showing early screenings of the film (in addition to Paris, guards escorted someone out of the Madrid premiere for illicitly taping the film). Second, the studio encouraged some theaters in Canada -- where as much as 40% of the world’s camcorded bootlegs originate -- to add guards to showings. Third, it patrolled file transfer websites where pirated movies usually land. And finally, Sony refused to send single shipments of entire “Spider-Man 3” film prints to theaters in a number of countries, instead breaking up the deliveries across several shipments.

“That way, no one has an entire print until opening day,” Blake said.

The idea behind split-reel delivery is to make sure that pirates have no access to a complete film at any step in shipping -- including freight trucks and customs offices. Entire prints can be copied on a film scanner, or Telecine, yielding a nearly pristine copy.

The countries targeted for split shipments included parts of Brazil, France, Romania and Britain. The list of trusted countries was much shorter, with Finland, Switzerland and Belgium among them.


“You run the risk of really missing out,” Blake said. “There’s nothing worse in the distribution world than a miss-out -- where the print doesn’t show up and you have to turn people away. But you have to balance that with going out at the last possible minute.” Ever since camcording inside a movie theater became a U.S. federal crime in 2005, pirates fled north to Canada to record movies in theaters, the MPAA says, because Canadian piracy laws are much weaker. Montreal has emerged as a main source for camcorded movies in North America.

Cineplex Entertainment is Canada’s largest exhibitor and plans to run “Spider-Man 3” on as many as 500 of its 1,290 screens. At its Scotiabank Theatre in downtown Montreal, the sequel will play on six or seven of the multiplex’s 12 screens.

But moviegoers who showed up for midnight “Spider-Man 3” screenings Thursday were in for a wait: The theater, among numerous other Cineplex locations, planned to inspect the handbags and backpacks of every guest. Theater staff and private security guards were also set to patrol auditoriums, looking for camcorders.

“We are trying to make sure we don’t leave any stone unturned,” said Ellis Jacob, Cineplex’s president, who will help guide the searches. “But it’s a hard one. People don’t like it. They are coming to the movies to escape reality.”