No Pirate Be I

The film industry is in the midst of a crisis. Namely, how can it wedge Vin Diesel into every movie it produces, even when Vin Diesel does not, to the casual observer, seem to fit? Would it be prudent to cram him into a romantic comedy opposite Kate Hudson, or a period piece co-starring Dame Judi Dench? These are the issues with which the film industry is currently grappling.

Hollywood is also concerned about movie pirating — not movies ABOUT pirates, because we know those always suck, but movies that are BEING pirated, as in stolen. Entire films can be downloaded from the Internet. Industrious types armed with video cameras can tape movies at public screenings and sell them the next day. Why, thanks to modern technology, you can walk down any street in New York City and buy a DVD copy of “Star Wars: Episode III,” and it HASN’T EVEN STARTED SHOOTING YET. That’s how far piracy has gone.

The studios are beginning to panic. They don’t know how to stop people from stealing movies, short of producing ones that are worth paying for. And so extreme measures are being taken. At pre-release screenings, audience members’ bags are being checked for recording devices, and security personnel equipped with night-vision goggles are skulking in the aisles to check for copyright-infringing activity. For example, jotting down everything the characters say and drawing pictures to accompany the dialogue would be a no-no.

A word on these advance screenings. They’re usually held in the evening a few days before the film opens, primarily so critics can see it and get their reviews in the paper on opening day, but also to generate word-of-mouth among civilians. Radio stations give away free tickets to the screenings; as a result, the audiences tend to be unruly, being jazzed over seeing a movie 1) for free and 2) before anyone else does, even if the movie is 3) lousy. Often, radio station personnel are on hand to throw out more free stuff, in the form of T-shirts and hats related to the film. It does not matter how unappealing the movie is, nor how shoddy the workmanship of the merchandise; people will go CRAZY to get this free stuff, just because it’s free. They could be throwing out vials of the hanta virus and people would still shriek like trailer trash at the Springer show and knock each other over to get it. (Another thing I’ve noticed: The more eager people are to obtain one of the free T-shirts, the less likely the shirt is to fit them.) (If you get my meaning.) (My meaning is that these people are fat.)

This atmosphere doesn’t seem like it would breed a lot of sophisticated film thieves, does it? But who knows. Maybe one of the large, tank-topped, mullet-headed gentlemen screaming at the top of his lungs for a free “National Security” hat is also well-versed in the craft of video pirating.

It was at a public screening like this that I first encountered the anti-piracy squad. We’d seen them check bags at a few films before, but they usually skipped the movie critics because they figured we were not the source of the pirated movies, not because of our code of ethics, but because we cannot afford video cameras. At “Finding Nemo,” however, the new policy began: Everyone gets checked. Thoroughly. A young fellow, no more than 20 years old but dressed in a suit, asked to check my bag. As he rummaged through it, he asked, “Do you have any cameras or recording devices?”

This struck me as an odd question. Did he think I would tell him if I did? Did he think I had planned on videotaping the movie to sell it on the black market, but only on the condition that it not involve fibbing? Was I bound by some pirate code of ethics where I’ll loot and plunder all the live-long day, but I have to answer any direct questions truthfully? (“Yar, ye caught me.”)

A good deal of time and money is being wasted on these searches. Most pirated movies come from the big cities like New York and L.A., and the best-quality ones come from weasels within the studio — people with access to prints — not from people aiming camcorders at movie screens. (On the DVD copy of “The Matrix Reloaded” I bought in New York the day after the film was released, you can actually see the theater’s exit sign.) Sending goons down to Sandy, Utah, is not going to prevent anything. I don’t object to the searches on grounds of privacy, because in the modern world I am accustomed to not having any. I object to them because the movie studios constantly complain about their profits diminishing, and now here they are wasting millions paying security personnel to administer frivolous, unfocused bag checks. This is in addition to the fortune they’re already wasting on Vin Diesel.

The detail about the "Matrix Reloaded" DVD featuring a view of the theater's exit sign is 100 percent true, and I really did buy it from a street vendor the day after the film came out.

Curiously, in 2004, Vin Diesel DID appear in a film with Dame Judi Dench, though it wasn't a "period piece" (well, maybe, if "the future" can be called a "period"). It was "Chronicles of Riddick," and it was weird.

The bit about how they could be throwing out vials of the hanta virus and people would still want it: I'd been waiting to use that in a column for a year. It's a point we movie critics often make as we sit together at those screenings and witness the behavior of the common folk.

I got this semi-angry e-mail at work:

Hi Eric,
Just finished reading your article in the Daily Herald, June 8th, 2003. I agree with your opinion with the issue of "wasting millions paying security personnel to administer frivolous,unfocused bag checks." However, I fail to see where Vin Diesel has anything to do with this issue. [He doesn't. Hence the phrase "Hollywood is ALSO concerned about movie pirating," suggesting we are changing subjects.] Has he been charged with pirating movies, or anything of the such? [No, no, nothing of the such.]

Maybe you should give Vin Diesel a call. Maybe he could enlighten you on a few pointers of making a little extra cash. Certainly that is why you are bashing him......RIGHT?!

Fan of Vin,

I guess I bashed Vin Diesel. I mean, I mentioned him, and I made fun of how many movies he's in, and how Hollywood keeps trying to capitalize on him. I guess that constitutes a bashing.

What I really learned from this is that I need to REALLY make fun of Vin Diesel in a future column. He has rabid fans.