Yar, we be navigatin’ the high seas of Hollywood movie piracy

By Sujay Kumar

When I was younger, I dreamt of being a pirate. Those dreams quickly sank after I was repeatedly told that there was no money in the business, and that it was socially unacceptable.

But today, we live in a different world. Piracy has grown into a business lucrative enough to worry even the most powerful of motion picture studio executives.

The swashbucklers I’m speaking of are not found grabbing booty on the high seas, but on street corners peddling illegal and now crystal clear, DVD-quality copies of movies in theaters. This isn’t your grandpa’s piracy.

Make no mistake, piracy has been the archenemy of the movie industry for years. In the past, within 24 hours of a film’s theatrical release, illegal prints were trafficking in black markets.

This is the fruit of the old-fashioned labor of buying a movie ticket and a bucket of popcorn, and hiding a video camera underneath a jacket. Pirates sneak around in the back row of the theater or slouch down in seats to conceal their capturing of footage. This old, but foolproof (unless you are busted and thrown out) method accounts for an estimated 90 percent of films that are pirated, according to the anti-piracy branch of the Motion Picture Association.

The other 10 percent of pirated movies are downloaded from Web sites after release, and then circulated to street vendors. Unfortunately, all of these copies usually deliver blurry and shaky images with God-awful sound quality and usually someone’s head visible on screen.

But ironically, with the release of “American Gangster,” a story of a man’s businesslike rise to power in the drug world, a new player has entered the American piracy business. Flawless digital copies of the film appeared on the Internet, and hit streets 10 days before the film’s Nov. 2 release. The Denzel Washington film is rumored to have been leaked from a production house copy or an Academy screener.

So who’s suffering from this new revolution of illegal activity in the piracy world?

In an episode of “Seinfeld,” when Jerry reluctantly becomes the Scorsese of bootlegging, he tells Kramer why he’s in the business: “I was up on 96th Street today, there was a little kid, couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. He was asking a street vendor if he had any other bootlegs that looked as good as ‘Death Blow.’ That’s who I care about. The little kid who needs bootlegs because his parent or guardian won’t let him see the excessive violence and strong sexual content that you and I take for granted.”

Maybe it’s all about the children, but it doesn’t seem as though anyone really cares about that. Instead, it’s all about the Benjamins. You know what I’m talking about – the cold hard cash.

“American Gangster” reportedly cost more than $100 million to make, and topped the box office by grossing $31 million in its first four days. But because pirated prints were selling for $5 more than a week before its release, Universal Pictures is left wondering how many ticket sales were washed away.

The film is reported to have been downloaded thousands of times. Tack on to that the amount of times Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Frank Lucas was burned onto DVDs. Then consider all of the people who were planning on paying full price to see the film who settled for a private couch viewing. At $6 a ticket, that’s a lot of money kept out of studio executive hands.

It’s no wonder pirates are considered one of the studios’ prime business competitors. Despite painstaking efforts by the industry to stop the proliferation of illegal prints, better bootlegs still find a way onto the streets. It’s left to us, the audience, to say ‘no’ to these copies and crackdown on piracy.

I hope to see “American Gangster” in theater someday, in all its raw glory.

Note: The author wants to recommend “American Gangster” to everyone. He really enjoyed the film.>