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Pirated blockbusters flood region

MPA estimates illegal products accounted for 5% Oz vid biz

SYDNEY — Australia is an advanced, relatively law-abiding nation. So why are videos of films such as “Spider-Man” and “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” being peddled as brazenly (but not yet in such plentiful supply) here as in piracy-blighted territories like Malaysia and Hong Kong?

The rising tide of DVDs and VCDs flooding into Oz from Asia is worrying the U.S. majors and local distribs, who are lobbying the government to step up enforcement of copyright laws and calling on courts to hand out stiffer penalties for offenders. While VCD players are uncommon outside Asia, the oft-pirated format also can be played on a personal computer.

Motion Picture Assn. officials estimate illegal videos accounted for 5% of the vid biz Down Under last year, repping approximately $26 million in foregone revenues. In 2000, the piracy level was 4%. While that does not sound like a huge increase, that does mean the pirates’ share jumped by 25% in one year, according to Mike Ellis, the MPA’s Hong Kong-based VP and director of Asia/Pacific antipiracy operations.

The criminals’ foothold in the Aussie market will continue to increase unless the courts start handing out jail sentences that act as a deterrent, Ellis says.

Judges can jail offenders for up to five years — but prison terms are rarely, if ever, imposed, and the fines handed out tend to be relatively lenient.

“There is an inordinate amount of pirated material in Asia which is trying to get in to Australia,” says Motion Picture Distributors Assn. chairman Mike Selwyn. “It’s not a major problem now, but it will become a bigger issue unless the government and police enforce the laws and give it the priority and resources needed.”

Typifying the easy availability of imported videos, one exhib bought a VCD of “Spider-Man” (the film opens June 6) for A$20 ($10.80) at a computer-software market in Melbourne May 19.

Ads in a Perth, Western Australia, newspaper last week were offering Asian DVD sub-titled versions of “Spider-Man” for $8.10 and DVDs of “Clones” (which bowed in theaters May 16) for $16.20.

The MPA-backed Australasian Film & Video Security Office is working closely with the police and customs to clamp down on offenders. Last week, customs officials in Sydney intercepted a consignment of 380 DVDs from Asia, in boxes marked as Asian movies, comprising 200 copies of “Spider-Man” and assorted titles including “Ali” and “Collateral Damage.”

Ellis says the increasing penetration of DVD players in Asia is fueling the piracy of Hollywood films in the region. And while seizures of counterfeit product have jumped dramatically, Ellis says piracy overall is still rising. Last year, 4.7 million DVDs were impounded in Asia in cases involving the MPA — up from 1.8 million copies in 2000 and just 600,000 in 1999. The three worst-offending territories were China (where Ellis estimates pirates command 88% of the vid business), Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Some 2.3 million VCDs were seized in Asia last year with the MPA’s help, vs. 1.9 million in 2000 and 1.4 million the year before.