Branded cinema

Studio insiders, not critics, are the pirates

He spent four hours in the makeup chair every day to achieve the look.
  • He spent four hours in the makeup chair every day to achieve the look.

It was the part I was born to play. No, not Kristen Stewart, but the unenviable role of angry critic forced to endure the insidious brands studios impose on their “art” in the name of anti-piracy.

It’s rare that a press screener doesn’t have the distributor’s name, “Do Not Duplicate,” recipient’s email address, dreaded time code, or any combination of the above branded into the picture. Yesterday’s emulsion scratches are today’s chyrons. Part of the job had become trying in vain ignore the obnoxious reminders. Occasionally one still encounters a screener that’s branded from fade in to fade out, but for the most part the interruptions are kept to ten-minute intervals and last for approximately thirty seconds.

The first time my handle popped up in mid-story was ten minutes into the screener of Monica Velour. Cut to an establishing shot, and there was “Scott Marks” perfectly framed across a storefront window as if I owned the place. Thirty minutes later my name landed smack dab in the middle of lover’s lips. Amusement quickly turned to rage at the realization that this distraction, an attempt to keep me from duplicating the studio product for quick turnaround on the streets of TJ, had instantly sucked me out of the picture.

If one defines piracy as the act of stocking a personal VHS collection with dubs struck from a friend’s Laserdisc collection, give me an eyepatch, a buckle to swash, and a plank to walk, as I should have been jailed decades ago. In the days before DVRs and VOD all but rendered video collecting obsolete, who among us didn’t have a bookshelf reserved for favorite movies or TV shows stored in black clamshell coffins?

The concept of large-scale video piracy first crossed my radar in 1982 not long after VCRs began taking up residence on TV stands across the land. Even before it hit theatre screens, E.T. was destined to become one of the biggest-selling home videos of all time.

Legend has it the night the film premiered at the Edens Theatre in Northbrook, IL — a near replica of Mission Valley’s long lamented Cinema 21 — there was a van containing a film chain parked near the back exit door. When reel one unspooled, an usher ran it to the van where a telecine operator transferred the print to video. Approximately 20 minutes after the first show had ended, an illegal copy was primed and ready for unlicensed duplication.

Only once did I intentionally purchase wildcat goods. There was a kid who worked the graveyard shift at the Purple Martin station where I gassed up. One night I noticed that the industrious lad had put in a line of bootleg tapes ripped straight from his laser vault. $5 a piece or four for $20. Who can resist a deal? I scarfed dubs of the original cut of Blade Runner and a few more. Next week, the makeshift video outlet was shuttered and its proprietor replaced by a guy who could barely muster a “Huh?” when asked, “What happened to the guy who used to work here?”

Then there was the pawn shop copy of Out of Sight that had my name on it. Trusting schmoe that I am, I never bother opening a case to check the quality of a used DVD. Had I done so, the title scrawled in Sharpie across a recordable disc might have made me think twice. We’ve all heard tales of scurrilous souls who smuggle camcorders into movie theatres for illicit gain. The first image to hit the screen was a shaky “Cineplex Odeon Feature Presentation” slug clearly captured from the back row of a multiplex. With knees acting as a tripod, the image quality mirrored the film’s title. Oddly enough, the stereo separation was perfect.

A friend’s brother makes a semi-annual business trip to China and always returns with a suitcase stuffed with bootleg DVD copies of films still in release that he purchased from street vendors. Not only is the picture quality sharp, but in some cases there are trailers and audio commentaries just like their officially licensed studio counterparts.

It didn’t take a trained eye to spot the forgery. The discs were generally packaged in clear, slimmer keep cases half the size of the traditional black polypropylene snappers. The dead giveaway was the cover insert. As if splashy poster art wasn’t enough of an attention grabber, the pirates sprinkled glitter across the perimeter of the packaging.

Surely distributors know that long before a disc or streaming screener makes its way to the critic, the act of piracy has been consummated by a technician or the like. Don’t blame the press for what’s clearly a studio’s inability to tighten the screws on an inside job. Besides, who in their right mind would risk losing the greatest job in the world just to pick up a little side money peddling unauthorized copies of Marvel’s latest marvel?

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