U.S. film industry, Mexico fights movie piracy
Cheap DVDs sold on streets cost Hollywood millions every year
Pirated movie DVDs are 20-30 pesos each on the streets of Puerto Vallarta. The quality varies depending on the outlet.
By Oscar Avila, ChicagoTribune, February 21, 2009
MEXICO CITY — Street vendor Amado Lopez was Hollywood’s best cheerleader last week as he talked up the nominees for the Academy Awards, especially “Slumdog Millionaire,” translated here as “I Want to Be a Millionaire.”
“A great drama,” Lopez said. “Realistic, exciting.”
The movie has gotten such buzz, in fact, that all the DVD copies sold out this week at Lopez’s stall in an open-air street market on the south side of Mexico City.
And there lies the problem for the U.S. film industry. The movie had not even reached Mexican theaters yet, much less the DVD aisle, except for the pirated copies that Lopez sells for about $1.50 apiece.
Far from the glamor of Oscar night, Hollywood is waging a ground war against movie piracy such as this, even sending undercover operatives to spot camcorders in Mexican movie theaters.
Movie piracy in Mexico cost the U.S. film industry $483 million in 2005, more than any other foreign country, according to the most recent data from the Motion Picture Association of America. The industry says it identified 32 movie releases that were illegally recorded in Mexican theaters in 2008, up from 12 in 2007.
But there is a disconnect between Hollywood, which sees movie piracy as a menace tied to organized crime, and Lopez’s customers, who wonder why a poor Mexican family should care about putting another dollar in Clint Eastwood’s pocket.
Ricardo Vargas, a soft-spoken retiree, doesn’t look like a criminal as he and his wife pick up their weekly DVD haul from Lopez’s stall and he waxes poetic about “the great old movies of quality, the German cinema, Charlie Chaplin, Gina Lollobrigida.”
“We couldn’t see all these movies in the theater,” he said. “The sodas, the parking, the candy, the popcorn. How much would it all cost?”
Mexican authorities have started to denounce piracy of all forms as an illicit activity that bankrolls more sinister aspects of organized crime. The federal attorney general’s office, which goes after drug traffickers and kidnappers, also reports raids of pirated movies, perfumes and medicine nearly every week.
Federal authorities report seizing more than 35 million DVDs in the first two years of President Felipe Calderon’s term, about 70 percent more than was seized in the six years of the previous term.
John Malcolm, worldwide anti-piracy director for the Motion Picture Association of America, said the Mexican government has “tried to make a serious dent” in movie piracy.
Malcolm’s association is lobbying for tougher Mexican laws, including a bill in Congress that would make recording a movie in a theater a punishable crime. Currently, prosecutors must show intent to distribute the film illicitly, Malcolm said.
Also, Mexican prosecutors need to receive a piracy complaint from the rights-holder before prosecuting, a burdensome step in the process, said Malcolm, a former federal prosecutor. Malcolm also wants Mexico to give customs officials greater discretion to seize products suspected of being fakes.
The Motion Picture Association of America has even dispatched dogs trained to sniff out large caches of DVDs at airports. Lucky and Flo already have been deployed in Malaysia and Britain, while Latin America might be a future destination.
The Mexican Film and Music Protection Association, funded by the U.S. film and music industries, sends undercover operatives into Mexican movie multiplexes to find which ones attract the most illicit camcorders. They then offer tips to authorities.
Investigators can tell which DVDs were illegally recorded in Mexican theaters because each distributed film has an embedded watermark that tells in which country it is being distributed.
But there would be no industry of pirated DVDs if there were no buyers.
Jaime Campos, director of the Mexican Film and Music Protection Association, said a “culture of illegality” exists in his country. His group estimates that 9 of every 10 movies sold in Mexico are pirated, a trend that discourages legitimate foreign investment.
A survey by the Alliance Against Piracy found that 75 percent of Mexicans have bought pirated DVDs, which are sold on subway cars and even in official neighborhood markets.
Hilda Castro, president of the alliance, made up of industries sick of having their products stolen, said young people must be educated that buying pirated DVDs is wrong.
Castro said her association recently helped get anti-piracy language into the civics curriculum for 5th graders in the next school year. A popular ad in movie theaters shows a youngster mocking a classmate whose father buys her pirated DVDs and hinting that he doesn’t love her enough to buy the real thing.
Castro said the association is looking at future ads that might make a more direct link between DVD piracy and organized crime, which has terrorized Mexico and caused more than 6,000 deaths last year.
“The same person who would never imagine going to a mall and walking out with a DVD, not only are they not ashamed to buy a pirated product, they are proud they got a bargain,” she said. “It’s one of the few crimes that is viewed as an acceptable crime.”
Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune