Paramount exec: Movie pirates getting better

Fred Huntsberry says business has gone from 'geek to sleek'

ORLANDO -- Paramount COO Fred Huntsberry travels the world delivering a facts-filled talk on global movie theft that amounts to this: Damn, those pirates are good!

"It's gone from geek to sleek," Huntsberry told exhibitors Monday during a keynote presentation at ShowEast.

Once the province of hackers and cyber-geeks, movie piracy has become a sophisticated and big business worldwide. More than 1,000 peer-to-peer websites in the U.S. alone offer illegally obtained movies.

Huntsberry demonstrated how a simple Google search turns up dozens of such sites, often boasting the look and feel of mainstream digital-rental operations.

"We're looking at websites that blend into the landscape of legitimate websites," he said. "It's getting harder for consumers to tell what's a legitimate website and which ones are illegitimate."

The Paramount executive wants to spread the message that the industry's cyber foes are growing in number and sophistication. Eventually, technology might be developed to identify and root out illegal camcording in theaters, he said, and the MPA trade group is lobbying for tougher legislation on intellectual-property theft and resale around the world.

But for now, Huntsberry's anti-piracy proselytizing is based on the belief that for exhibitors, "information is power," Huntsberry said.

"You have an almost day-and-date uploading of films today, and within a week or two, there are versions available in almost every language," he said.

Initially, picture and sound quality usually is inferior to legitimate product. But just before a movie is released on DVD -- as discs are shipped to stores worldwide -- the quality of movies available for download from illegal "cyberlockers" takes a big leap, Huntsberry said.

Paramount has been among the studios least inclined to rush DVDs into the market following films' theatrical runs, and it's partly because of such fears.

"The belief [at Paramount] is that if you make the product available earlier, you are exposing it earlier to piracy," Huntsberry said.

Cyberlockers operate hand in glove with sites dedicated to linking consumers with such pirated content. Separating the linking sites from the content-storage sites helps thwart officials from cracking down on the immensely lucrative operations.

"Pirates are making tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars with these models," Huntsberry said.

Revenue comes chiefly from membership fees. But many of the sites also sell advertising to mainstream consumer-products companies, which unwittingly place the ads through advertising agencies.

Meanwhile, cyberlockers continue to multiply. Within six months of Paramount's "Star Trek" being released in theaters, the movie was being offered for viewing by 74,000 cyberlockers.

"That means we had to issue 74,000 notices to take it down as well," Huntsberry quipped.

Elsewhere at ShowEast on Monday, executives from companies involved in the delivery of alternative content to cinemas -- generally sporting events and concerts -- discussed its quick market growth in the age of digital cinema.

Digitally distributed, alternative programming generally is offered during nonpeak hours to avoid conflicting with core moviegoing activity. But the recent spread of alternative content occasionally has caused concern among film distributors, panelists acknowledged.

"The best thing you can do if you can is to dedicate one of your screens almost entirely to such content, if you can," advised Ira Deutchman, whose Emerging Pictures provides alternative programming to dozens of theaters.