Fest sneaky peeks often dash hopes

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Michael Cera's documentary comedy "Paper Heart" will have its big unveiling at Sundance next month, unspooling as a world premiere in a key Saturday slot.

Well, the term "world premiere" might be a misnomer. A bootlegged copy of the movie has been making the rounds within the industry, allowing even prospective buyers to vet the film quietly ahead of its Sundance showing.

"Heart" is hardly the only title to draw reports of leaked copies. The Kevin Spacey drama "Shrink," Cherien Dabis' immigration saga "Amreeka" and the Robin Williams starrer "World's Greatest Dad" are among the movies for which screeners might precede screenings.

Sundance DVDs and tapes have long been the open secret of the indie world. This year, though, there's more noise about them, with some sellers saying that bootlegs are being traded faster than tapes at a Grateful Dead concert.

A hot market can sometimes ignite the black market as buyers, eager to gain an edge, spare no effort in landing screeners. But a chillier finished-film market like the current one also can drive interest, with distributors scoping out films to determine how to deploy their more limited resources after they land on the ground.

Sales agents say that though the interest is flattering, there are plenty of dangers to this shadow economy.

"There are films where it could virtually kill the market for a movie," Cinetic Media chief John Sloss said. "From our perspective, this is war, and you're at your peril if you don't treat it that way."

Sellers say part of the problem is that films aren't completed, leading buyers to make potentially erroneous decisions.

But the bigger issue, they argue, is that the movies are designed to be seen with both an audience and other buyers. Sneak peeks watched from one's living room don't give an accurate indication of how a movie will play in theaters and can damage prospects for a theatrical sale. "There's a reason why people select a particular audience at a particular festival and a particular environment," one sales agent said. "And bootlegs ruin that."

Although not defending the leaked copies, buyers say they use screeners as a critical filter for a large festival slate and don't make decisions based on them. "I don't think there's any effect," one acquisitions executive said. If anything, some buyers say, a strong reaction to a screener might prompt a company to send more execs to a festival screening.

The screeners do, however, sometimes create tension among buyers, with those who haven't gotten their hands on a copy complaining to sellers about those who have.

Indeed, it's hard to know how the screeners fell of the truck. Many, buyers say, come from lower-ranking staffers; an assistant with a producer or publicist might slip a copy of one movie to a counterpart in exchange for another. Before a festival, a screener is currency, and many might use it as a way to curry favor with bosses or simply to gain a perceived competitive advantage.

The bootlegging has prompted a call from some sellers for more vigilance.

"There needs to be a wake-up call to filmmakers," another sales agent said.

But observers say there are few ways to stop it. Filmmakers rarely have the resources to watermark a screener, and the complex social networks that come with a festival screening — sales agents, publicists, festival organizers, below-the-line crew, producers and friends all are a part — ensures it's almost impossible to enforce or monitor who has a movie or where it ends up.

So impossible, in fact, that sometimes, even filmmakers are surprised by the bootlegs.

"I don't know how someone would see my movie," said "Shrink" helmer Jonas Pate, who is still tweaking his film in postproduction. "I've barely seen my movie." (partialdiff)
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