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Pirate hunters on patrol - Aye, matey, the security firms are watching you as you watch that preview screening

The Providence Journal - Providence, R.I.

PROVIDENCE - A burly security guard looks through a woman's handbag. He asks the man next to her if he has a cell phone with him. He does and the guard asks to see it. Another guard waits with a metal detector wand to check for contraband before the couple can go through the door.

Are these people in line for an airport security check before boarding a flight to visit Aunt Tillie in Minneapolis?

No, they're at the movies!

People who've won tickets on the radio to free preview screenings of coming movies are now subject to searches that may even result in temporary seizure of their cell phones - handed back at the end of the show. It's all part of Hollywood's war against movie piracy.

It's a growing global problem. The movie industry says that it's losing $4.5 billion a year in revenue to pirates who take video cameras or cell phones with enough capacity to record an entire feature film into a theater, capture the image flickering across the screen, then create DVD copies that are sold for as little as $5 on street corners. Films that are not scheduled to open in theaters until Friday can often be found being hawked on Thursday by street corner vendors from Moscow to Beijing, Bangkok to New York to even Providence.

At the height of summer box office season, the Australian Federal Police arrested a Sydney man who allegedly had recorded The Simpsons Movie on his cell phone at an advance screening July 26, then uploaded it onto the Internet only hours before it was to have its first theatrical showing in the United States on July 27. By the time Australian authorities caught up to the man, the movie had been illegally downloaded 110,000 times. Multiply that times the $10 average ticket price at a theater and you're talking real money.

Closer to home last May, 15,000 counterfeit movie DVDs and music CDs, with an estimated value of $250,000, were seized by the Rhode Island State Police from a storefront operation in Providence. Among the movies was Spider-Man 3, which had just opened in theaters.

It doesn't seem to matter to some buyers that the quality of these homemade in-theater recordings is usually very poor. The images are often shaky. Sometimes they are interrupted by other audience members making loud comments during the screening or walking in front of the camera to get to the concession stand or restrooms. But some purchasers figure that they're getting something very cheaply and will at least get the gist of the movie. They can also claim bragging rights as the first of their friends to see it.

This is where Marcellus Sharpe's CC Security and other similar companies around the country come into play. They're on the front lines - or at least the front doors to the auditoriums - checking shopping bags and handbags, asking to see cell phones, some of which now have the capacity to hold an entire feature-length movie.

What started out as a janitorial service nearly a quarter century ago and later expanded to include a security service at construction sites a decade later, branched out again two years ago. CC now provides security for big-scale events such as the Bob Dylan and Counting Crows concerts at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, where a complement of 31 guards was stationed in the stands, or to Cindy Crawford's promotional visit to a Seekonk furniture store.

That business led CC last spring to become part of the team that's bent on stopping the illegal recording of new movies in local theaters for such film industry leaders as Disney, MGM, Paramount, Lionsgate and Sony Pictures. The CC guards have worked advance screenings of ms at Providence Place, Cinemaworld at the Lincoln Mall and the Showcase Warwick Mall cinemas, plus the Nantucket Film Festival and the Newport International Film Festival, according to Ronald Brewer, who runs security operations for CC from its home base in a former funeral home on Admiral Street in Providence. In Newport they checked patrons at a screening of Sony's animated film Surf's Up, which was presented at the film festival a few days before its national theatrical release.

CC Security is actually a subcontractor, hired for these jobs by California-based Andrews International. It's the eighth largest security agency in the United States, but the one with the lion's share of movie industry clients, said Andy Lamprey, vice president of Andrews, over the phone from his office in Burbank, just down the street from Warner Bros.

Lamprey said movie piracy has been growing "at an astronomical pace over the last four years, but we've made significant strides in stopping it." He added that Andrews guards have caught movie pirates in the act and that the perpetrators face stiff federal and local consequences. Brewer pointed out that it is a federal offense to pirate movies, with "a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and one year in jail."

He said that CC's work doesn't stop at the door before a movie goes on screen. Brewer said guards are stationed inside the theater when the lights go down, looking over the audience with night-vision lenses to see if anyone has snuck a cell phone into the theater to make an illegal copy.

They also, depending on the demands of the film company and the importance of the film, go into the projection booth when the film is delivered by courier, watching the reels being put together by the projectionist. At the end of the show, they watch as the film is broken down into individual reels and put back into its box. Sometimes one of the guards will return to the projection booth during the middle of the show to check on the status of the film.

For the film War, a martial arts extravaganza starring Jet Li, Brewer said, "We had to call California to get the combination code to the locked box and then we had to stay with the box until the film was loaded back in at the end of the show."

Once they arrive at the theater, the guards must call an 800 number to report that everything is in place. "At the end we have to call to tell them that the film is over and what time the courier arrived to pick it up." Usually, they must fax a report back to the studio the next day.

Security demands for some films is greater than for others. "Transformers was huge; it was very tight," Brewer said. "For Superbad it was the first time we did a bag and tag." They were ordered by the studio to put all cell phones in brown paper lunch bags to which were stapled half of a numbered ticket, the other half given to the patron for later retrieval. "Several people refused to come in. They wouldn't leave their phones. We told them that they could go back to leave it in their cars or we'd have to bag and tag," recalled Brewer.

Sometimes patrons are allowed to take in phones, provided the devices can't record for more than 30 seconds and that the patrons turn them off in front of the guard. "We warn them that if they turn the phone on in the cinema we will eject them."

Brewer said a lot of people don't mind this, but "a lot are offended.

"We tell them, briefly, that getting a ticket to the screening is a privilege and that the passes state that this is the procedure." He said people have been ejected for turning on their phones in the auditorium or turned away for refusing to give up their phones when asked. "We found one person who was trying to get a camcorder into the theater, but we've never caught anyone in the act of recording a film."

During the busy summer movie season, Brewer said CC was often covering three preview screenings a week. "For Surf's Up in May, we did seven different screenings, even up in Randolph, Mass., covering close to a 100-mile radius." He said that plans are afoot to cover some of the preview screenings in Boston in the near future as well.

The downside for the security guards, who dress in dark suits, is that they can't watch all those movies, getting no more than an occasional sneak peek if something exciting is happening on screen. "We must,'' said Brewer, "pay attention to the audience."