Crackdown In Cinemas

The practice of showing commercials before the start of movies defrauds the public and should be stopped, according to lawsuits filed against two movie theater chains.
At a recent showing of "Big Fish," several moviegoers at a local theater held up camera-equipped cell phones and took snapshots of the screen. Doing the same with a video camera will soon be a crime.

Along with other several states including California, Ohio has at Hollywood's urging passed a law that lets police arrest people for videotaping movies in theaters.

The new statutes augment a film industry anti-piracy arsenal that includes bag searches for people entering movie houses — a multifaceted response to technological strides that make digital video distribution a snap.

Some analysts say that with such tactics Hollywood is shooting a political blunderbuss that could backfire. The movie industry, they say, should be more concerned about the illegally copying of films by its own.

A recent AT&T Labs study found that three of every four movies leaked on the Internet came from industry insiders — a trend that motivated the Motion Picture Academy of America to temporarily stop sending "screener" tapes and DVDs to Oscar voters.

That kind of digital piracy "is much more of a threat than someone sneaking in with a video camera," said David Joyce, media analyst with Guzman & Co. "You're going to have really poor quality — it's not going to duplicate as quickly as an actual digital file."

Ohio's bill, signed in December by Gov. Bob Taft and taking effect in March, gives movie theaters the right to detain people suspected of videotaping movies, just as a department store can hold a suspected shoplifter.

A similar law took effect Jan. 1 in California. Michigan lawmakers introduced legislation in December, and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania passed equivalent bills in 1999.

The Motion Picture Association of America says it plans to lobby at least a dozen more states this year for similar legislation. The industry estimates pirated movies cost it $3.5 billion annually.

"It's the same way an honest consumer is hurt by shoplifting," said John Fithian, president of North American Theater Owners.

California already has felony-level laws that could be used to prosecute suspected movie pirates. Its new law creates a less serious charge that would be easier for district attorneys to use, said James Provenza, legislative counsel for the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office. Although the new California charge is a misdemeanor, it still carries serious consequences — up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Under Ohio law, by contrast, a first offense would be punishable by six months in jail and up to $1,000 fine. Michigan's bill would set penalties up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The state laws make it easier to prosecute individuals caught in theaters because the charges focus simply on the operation of a camera — avoiding the more prickly details of federal copyright law.

"Enforcement is always a last resort, but we hope this will be a deterrent," said Vans Stevenson, senior vice president for the Motion Picture Association of America.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, is concerned that the state laws often are written too broadly and ignore traditional "fair use" copying of small portions of a movie for personal or educational use.

"I'm in a theater watching a movie that really (stinks), I take a five-second picture clip and send it to friends and say, 'This movie (stinks),'" said Jason Schultz, foundation staff attorney. "Have I now violated the law and committed a felony?"

Increasingly, studios are also beefing up security around movies. At the Arena Grand Theatre in downtown Columbus, security guards hired by the studios regularly check patrons' bags, especially during sneak previews of new films.

It's not unusual for a guard to watch projectionists as they assemble the film and then sit in the booth during the movie, said Seth Distelzweig, an Arena Grand assistant manager.

For a recent preview of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," two security officers accompanied the movie from Los Angeles. At a preview for "Honey," guards walked through the darkened theater wearing night vision goggles to check for cameras.

Moviegoer Margaret Nivins is so accustomed to the searches that she now leaves her purse in the car.

"It's just easier for me to work without it, and then it's easier for them too," said Nivins, 42, waiting in line to see a "Big Fish" preview at the theater.

Yet the October study by AT&T Labs questioned the impact of camera-toting movie pirates. Researchers created a list of the 312 most popular movies released between January 2002 and June 2003.

After locating 285 of those movies on the Internet, researchers used software to look for evidence of their origin, such as visible boom mikes in scenes, a sign that the copies were unedited versions. They also looked for watermarks on film or text on the movie itself, such as phrases "For screening purposes only."

Their conclusion: 77 percent of the films came from insider sources, either motion picture companies or theater employees taping from the projection booth.

"Our initial thoughts were how easy it is to get these copies from the movies," said Patrick McDaniel, one of the AT&T researchers. "The data set we did didn't actually show that to be true."

Stevenson of the MPAA says the researchers used flawed data. The movie industry says its internal analysis last year found that 92 percent of recently released movies found on the Internet came from camcorders.

Fithian, of the movie theaters association, takes a softer view.

"There's no doubt that piracy comes from multiple sources," he said. "My reaction is to attack piracy at every source."
By Andrew Welsh-Huggins