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Screens On the front lines of piracy

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It’s just like the, um, Marines, says one film-security expert

The line inches slowly forward as each patron is thoroughly scanned with a handheld metal detector. Security personnel peek into each purse or bag with a miniature flashlight and check all cell phones to make sure they are turned off.

This procedure might sound like a Homeland Security pre-flight screening or a federal-courthouse check-in, but these precautions are not for the protection of other human beings. The measures are prescribed by movie studios during promotional, press, and other advance screenings as part of the ongoing battle against film piracy. The Motion Picture Association of America estimates that the U.S. film industry loses more than $3 billion annually in potential worldwide revenue due to unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyrighted material.

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“These `security` measures are meant to prevent movies from getting out on the internet and being copied and sold illegally,” says Kori Bernards, spokesperson for the MPAA office in Los Angeles. “It is really to protect the consumer and the quality of the movie as much as it is to protect copyright laws.”

According to Bernards, 90 percent of initial releases that are pirated are copied by someone using a camcorder in a movie theater. After a film is pirated during a screening, it can end up on internet file-sharing websites or illegal DVDs before its official opening weekend or film-festival debut.

Security companies, which are contracted and subcontracted by movie studios including Warner Bros. Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Lions Gate Films, take the lead in protecting motion pictures during screenings. Lender Protective Services, Inc., U.S. Security Services, Inc. and internationally recognized Securitas — all with local branches — do the grunt work for film studios in San Antonio. Although these companies do not work solely for the film industry — many of them offer security in other venues, including gated communities, malls, VIPs, and currency transportation — some say guarding a movie is much like guarding anything else.

“Along with the movie, we’re protecting the public as well,” said T. Lee Powers, general manager and security for Lender Protective Services Inc. “The reason that studios can afford these lavish special effects and big movie stars is by maintaining control over their artistic product. We are just a small cog in that big wheel that protects the movie industry from piracy and theft and the improper release of their property.”

“Movie piracy is one of the reasons you

have to pay $8 for a movie instead of $1.”


– Eric Claro, security officer

Powers, who moonlights as a Shavano Park city councilman, said Lender has been working pre-screenings for about a year. He added that each studio has guidelines that Lender must follow during an advance screening.

“We get very detailed instructions `from studios` on just how far they want us to go and how intrusive they want us to be with the security,” said Powers. “We try to keep it as civil and low key as we can so the rest of the population can enjoy their movie-going experience.”

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During a special advance screening of the sports film Glory Road at Regal Northwoods Stadium 14, Lender followed Buena Vista Pictures’ instructions. Before allowing anyone into the theater for the 7:30 p.m. show, security officers scanned everyone over age 15 with a handheld metal detector, checked purses for recording devices, and confiscated cell phones with video capabilities. Those cell phones were placed in separate Ziploc press-and-seal baggies and signed for by the owner so they could be returned after the screening.

“I wouldn’t have come if I knew they were going to take my phone,” said Claudia Morales. “I don’t even know how to use the camera.”

UTSA psychology major Daniel Hernandez says he understands why studios hire companies to make sure no one is pirating a film, but he doesn’t think it’s necessary to worry about devices such as cell-phone cameras.

“If someone really wants to get a phone inside they’re going to get it in,” Hernandez said. “But even if they do, it’s not like a phone can record an entire movie. Even if it could, the film quality would be so bad.”

Although San Antonio agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office have shut down illegal DVD copying facilities and seized bootleg DVDs in south-central Texas, Lender and U.S. Security say they have not yet busted someone in the act of covertly taping a film.

“We get very detailed instructions

`from studios` on just how far they

want us to go and how intrusive they

want us to be with the security.”


– T. Lee Powers

On another evening, U.S. Security Services officers, who according to regional supervisor Robert Luna have been trained in anti-piracy laws, manned the promotional screening for Paramount Pictures’ Last Holiday, starring Queen Latifah, at Santikos Embassy 14. Although the film was not scheduled to begin until 7:30 p.m., security officer Eric Claro said he met the courier who brought the film to the theater two hours prior to show time.

“We pretty much baby-sit the film,” Claro said, adding that another security officer would take refuge in the projection booth while the film was rolling. “We’re like the frontline of defense. We’re the Marines — the first ones in.”

Before the start of the film, Claro stood at the front of the movie screen and faced a theater full of people who had just taken their seats after going through a security check. His fellow officers waited in the wings, one with a pair of night-vision binoculars used to detect suspicious lights from the audience during the movie.

“I know it seems like a hassle, but movie piracy is one of the reasons you have to pay $8 for a movie instead of $1 like I did when I was a kid,” said Claro, who followed studio instructions to make a speech and came off sounding like he was giving a public-service announcement.

“All this for a movie that’s probably going to suck?” someone joked with a friend while standing in the concession line. “I should have just stayed home and downloaded it on-line.”

By Kiko Martinez


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