Hollywood frustrated by lack of results

TORONTO — Forget runaway production, Canada is in Hollywood’s dog house once again, this time over the issue of camcorded movie pirating, which one miffed studio executive deems “epidemic” in the Great White North.

“There was a period in 2006 where camcorded films originating in Canadian theaters accounted for almost 50% of camcord sources worldwide,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s sr. VP and general sales manager. “That’s what has put us on this track to try to stem and control this epidemic.”

The issue came to the fore after Fox president of domestic distribution Bruce Snyder fired off a letter of complaint about camcording in theaters in Canada, and Montreal in particular, to Cineplex Entertainment Prexy and CEO Ellis Jacob.

This was not the first Jacob had heard of the issue. Canada is a well-known pirating hub, both for music and movies, and has for three years been on the U.S. government’s watch list for its inability to get a grip on it.

But with his letter, Snyder went even further, threatening to either delay or halt all together the Canadian release of Fox Films if nothing is done to stem the tide. “We’re very serious about this,” says Aronson. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to do it tomorrow, but if this problem is not remedied, this is one remedy that we will consider. We are facing a doomsday situation, and we find it intolerable.”

Far from being a Fox-Cineplex conflict, Jacob says that piracy is an industry-wide crisis in which all of the players — including the U.S. studios, are essentially in agreement.

It’s just that results are short in coming in the Great White North.

“To me, that letter describes the level of frustration that he has with the situation in Canada,” says Doug Frith, president of the Canadian Motion Picture Distribution Association. “Piracy is a never-ending fight, and as technologies change, our arsenal of tools has to change to combat it.”

Watermarking, a new technology introduced a few years ago, allows the source of bootlegs to be pinpointed, and that has brought Montreal to the fore as a culprit, probably because tentpoles enjoy day and date releases in both English and French in that city, making them more valuable on the worldwide black market.

Cineplex and its ilk are training employees with night-vision goggles to spot cammers, and are launching a campaign to educate the DVD-buying public about bootlegging as a crime.

And the RCMP has eight officers on the case in Montreal working to crack international crime rings called encoding groups or release groups in which a cammer emails an ill-gotten master file to contacts around the world from which the “silvers,” DVDs sold on the street, are made.

But everyone is hampered by Canada’s copyright legislation, under which camcording remains a civil offense unless the theater can prove that the cammer is distributing the film. This reverse onus makes it more expensive, time consuming, and difficult to get a conviction. “This is part of the legislative enforcement and judicial vacuum,” says Frith. “Individuals at that stage of the piracy chain shouldn’t be able to plea-bargain and settle for a $5,000 fine. Then he or she sees it as a cost of doing business.”

In the many jurisdictions (including 38 US states) where camcording has been designated a criminal act, pirating has declined significantly. “There’s no question that it works,” says Fox’s Aronson, “because we’ve seen the remedy work in the States. Camcording, which used to be rampant, is now very much under control.”

So anti-piracy activists want the federal government to amend the criminal code to that end. “Solving the problem is not that difficult,” says Jacob. “It just needs an amendment to the legislation.”

Easier said than done. The federal government seemed to be on the verge reforming copyright legislation a year ago but was turfed from office. The group mounted another lobby for the new government, but then in January the Justice Minister was replaced, putting them back at square one again. Jacob and co have a request in to meet with the new minister. “He’s got to have a chance to look at this stuff, look at the history and hear us out,” says Jacob. “The big thing for us is making this a high priority.”

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