LOS ANGELES — In the 1970s, drug kingpin Frank Lucas frustrated the powers that be with a businessmanlike approach to his illegal activities. Three decades later, scores of fast-moving film pirates are similarly frustrating one of the world's most powerful movie companies. These days, Universal Pictures is eager to talk about "American Gangster" — but not so willing to discuss some rabid groups of American pirates.
"No comment," was the rapid-fire response from a Universal rep — who requested not to be identified — when asked about the low-priced DVDs of the Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe drama that have been circulating in major U.S. cities, apparently for more than a week. With the film opening Friday, however, one can't help but assume that there's a lot of commenting going on in the hallways and boardrooms of the film studio.
"A copy of 'Hostel II' leaked out before its release and [the pirates] had it, and it was like millions and millions of hits," director Eli Roth told us last month, recounting his own real-life horror story. "Not only was it downloaded, but in the countries it was downloaded, like Mexico and Brazil, there were copies on the street for practically a penny. You could buy 'Hostel II' for a quarter in Mexico City."
Currently, various reports have Denzel's film, the budget of which has been rumored to be more than $100 million, selling on street corners in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere for $5 or less. Unlike such other problematically pirated films as "Sicko" and the "Hostel" sequel, however, the "Gangster" crisis is notable for having moved beyond Internet file-sharing and typical movie-studio headaches.
Movie companies typically have a 24-hour period — the bootlegs usually don't hit the streets until the day after a film's release. But this movie has been pirated weeks beforehand, and the picture is so crystal-clear that it could fit comfortably on a shelf at Blockbuster. In fact, one of MTV News' own employees was recently approached at a gas station by a bootlegger trying to sell the movie.
Unlike such piracy favorites as the 2004 thriller "Mindhunters," the copies of "Gangster" are crystal-clear, with none of the "property of" burn-ins that typically indicate its origin. Aside from a few minor audio pops here and there, it seems no different than the eventual DVD that Universal would release itself.
"I'm furious," Roth said while fuming over the similar problem he encountered, which he blamed for his sequel opening with nearly a third of the opening take earned by the original "Hostel" film. "Unless you start an awareness that it's not OK, it's never going to change. In Japan, there's no piracy. You think they don't have the technology for piracy in Japan? They have it better than any of us. But they don't have the problem, because there's cultural shame associated with it."
Typically, a film's piracy problems tend to stem from one of two camps: a small army of geeks downloading from evasive Web sites or man-with-a-camera DVD bootlegs shot in the back of a theater after the film's initial release. "Gangster," however, seems to be blazing a new territory that has brazen bootleggers offering DVDs to people who wouldn't normally wander into L.A.'s Chinatown or New York's 125th Street.
MTV News has also received reports of "Gangster" bootlegs in Virginia and Atlanta, with the Los Angeles market becoming so flooded that one seller told us he's giving them away free with the purchase of another DVD.
Given the flurry of bootlegs already out there, is it safe to assume that there's so much anticipation for the flick that it will top the box office this weekend? We'll find out the results soon enough — and they'll just be another chapter in this ever-evolving "Gangster" tale.
Check out everything we've got on "American Gangster."
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