Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Enjoy your show! Oh, and please leave your DNA sample on the table by the door...

Anti-piracy measures at preview screenings are, to put it mildly, getting way out of hand.

As a film reviewer, I’m fortunate enough to be one of the lucky few who land routine invites to see movies a few days (or sometimes a couple of weeks) ahead of the general public. For a movie lover like me, this is a dream come true and, for the most part, I don’t have a single bad thing to say about the process. I love it and am grateful. My only complaint is the increasingly freakish and militaristic treatment we preview audiences are being asked to endure for the sake of our sneaks.

The heightened security started a couple of years ago and is, we’re told, a bid by the studios and distributors to thwart camcorder-wielding morons from taping the films and then pirating them. At first, it was just the occasional harmless bag search or photo I.D. verification on the way into a Big Event Film like Star Wars: Attack of the Clones or Spider-Man 2. Sometimes, in addition to the peek inside our knapsacks and the flash of a driver’s license, we were subjected to scans with metal detectors. A small nuisance in the grand scheme of things, so whatever.

But that wasn’t enough, I guess. Bag searches, even for members of the press, became routine, and the body-scans mandatory. Then, infrared night-vision goggles were introduced and used – either by studio reps or theater employees – to scan the audience for ne'er-do-wells several times during the course of a movie...something that's more than a tad irritating when Mike the security guy is blocking your view of the screen while he tries to get a clear shot of what exactly the folks in the last row are doing or not doing.

Still, more needed to be done in the eyes of the studios. Sure, they could search us and watch us sporadically, but why not also have two guys positioned at the front of the theater, just in front of the screen and facing the audience, with infrared videocameras taping the audience for the entire film? I’m sure to someone in some boardroom at some movie studio where films are enjoyed in private screening rooms with plush sofas, this sounded like a fantastic and wholly unobtrusive idea.

Not so much to those of us actually in the theater.

Okay, to recap: bags searched, identification verified, bodies scanned with metal detectors, infrared goggles or cameras keeping an eye on moviegoers. And this is now for movies across the board, from poop like The Honeymooners to highly anticipated blockbusters like Revenge of the Sith. Hmmm...what else? Hey! How about confiscating cell phones on the way into a screening? Excellent! (To be honest, this one doesn’t bother me as much because it partially ensures none of us will be subjected to ringtones echoing through the aisles at some critical moment in a movie. Still.) So, it’s now passed that anyone carrying a cell phone must relinquish said telecommunications device to one of the thuggish-looking security “guards,” who then drop the phone into a Ziplock baggie and number it for post-movie retrieval.

[I should point out that these processes make actually getting into the theater a time-consuming task. Give yourself at least an extra 15 minutes to account for the time needed just to get you through security.]

But the pi├Ęce de resistance came with my pass for the preview screening of The War of the Worlds. Already awash in secrecy and ubiquitous bad press (TomKat, I’m glaring at you…), WOTW and the studio responsible didn’t really need to give its potential audience members another reason to roll their eyes and consider seeing something else. But they did. For, affixed to my invite was a small memo notifying me that all bags, purses, knapsacks, cell phones and recording devices of any kind (well, DUH!) would have to be checked AND HELD outside the theater until after the movie is over. This means that we’re essentially allowed to go in with the clothes on our backs and nothing more…and I’m not even entirely sure we won’t be subjected to a strip search before we can take our seats.

I mean, COME ON. We get it, already! Taping BAD! Pirates EVIL! Geez. And who in their right mind is going to happily hand over their purse or briefcase to some generic, un-liable oaf who looks like he’s part of a work-release program, so that he can drop it into a plastic bag and pile it on top of hundreds of others, anyway? Gee, I’m sure nothing will go missing as the teenaged rent-a-cops have at our belongings while we’re shuffled inside.

For starters, people who want to pirate a movie are going to do it not matter how many lame-ass security precautions are dreamed up by the studio honchos. Period. They’re a fiercely determined bunch, you know. Just because you force someone to check their knapsack doesn’t mean he won’t smuggle a camera inside his jumbo bag of popcorn! Your anti-piracy tactics aren't deterrents, they're a challenge! Many times, piracy is carried out by theater and studio staffers, anyway – people who have unrestricted access to things like projection booths and preview tapes and such – so why penalize the rest of us?

These practices are also bordering on the kind of personal-rights infringement that may just make people stay away altogether. Who wants to win tickets to a movie (yay!), only to be treated like a criminal upon arrival (boo!)? I half expect mandatory DNA samples and fingerprinting to be introduced in the near future. A good number of these security goons given the responsibility of enforcing the rules are also on a collectively misguided power trip. I’ve had more than a few rudely behave as though they were searching me (and my bag) for weapons of mass destruction instead of a deadly cameraphone (which, btw, I don’t own). It’s gotten to the point that I bring nothing but a bottle of water in my bag so that it can be opened and examined in as little time, and with as little manhandling, as possible. I make sure there are no keys or coins in my pockets that might set off the metal detectors, and I take off any extra clothing (like jackets or sweaters) well in advance of being scanned, lest a zipper get me beeped and subsequently tackled by the authorities.

What’s most baffling, though, is that amid all this ridiculous hooey, movie are still finding their way onto the Internet faster than ever before. The tighter security gets, the more inventive the pirates get. The measures employed by the studios – including those tearful, pre-movie pleas from Ben Affleck to stop! piracy! now! – are serving no purpose beyond annoying the law-abiding film fans like me who just want to see the freakin’ movie.

I’d rather see the distributors and theater chains tap their Brain Trust for solutions to the real problems plaguing filmgoers, like people who talk during movies. Or groups of six who lumber into an opening-day screening 10 minutes into the film and then try to find seats together in the dark. Or the unforgivable louts who always kick the back of my seat. Nevermind the outrageous ticket and concession prices gouging us at every turn.

Those are the real criminals, and they’re the ones who need to be stopped.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Raftman's Razor, and being proud of your friends

For me, one of the big highlights at the Seattle International Film Festival was a shorts program called "Accidentally Growing Up"... specifically one short called The Raftman's Razor (www.raftmansrazor.com). There were probably a couple dozen people in the theater that specifically hooted and hollered when the film started. You see, Raftman has some local connections (for instance, one person in the audience yelled out, "That's my brother!" as the closing credits rolled). For me, the pleasure was that my good pal Joel Haskard from college wrote the screenplay, and his cohort Keith Bearden (whom I also knew in college) directed it.

Knowing the people involved behind-the-scenes of any film, whether it be a short or feature or documentary or whatever, totally changes your perception and enjoyment of a film (hopefully for the better). Have you ever had a screenwriter or filmmaker friend who has all the passion and the drive, but maybe not quite the talent? Making anything creative is tough, and I can vouch for that. Writing about other people's creative work (movies) is a heck of a lot less intimidating than creating your own.

There is a scene in Raftman that had my friends' personalities written all over it, and it made me giggle and clap my hands. The short film is about two teenage boys that are obsessed with a serial comic called The Raftman's Razor. The storyline of the comic is this: A man in a suit sits drifting at sea in an inflatable raft, and at one point he gives himself a shave with a straightrazor and a cup of shaving cream that is the only other thing on the raft. While doing this, you see a voice bubble, with a single quote... something profound like, "A life not lived is a life not worth living." (or along those lines--sorry to make up a quote, guys)... and for the next 30 pages, NOTHING HAPPENS. He just drifts in his raft. The boys get the latest issue, and there is some new clue about the Raftman... something is going to happen! In triumph, the boys jump up and down, doing handstands, and playing air guitar solos in a victory gesture. Just like something Joel and Keith would do.

A small movie like Raftman reminded me of why I love movies. There were a dozen or so people in the audience that were directly involved in the making of this short film, and another dozen or so friends that were there in support of the movie. There was this ripple of electric excitement in the air. After all that work, it was in a film festival! People unrelated to the movie liked it and applauded! Really, how fun is that? Most filmmakers, like most artists, have day jobs like the rest of us... but to see a labor of love, of passion, make it from idea to screen to film festival is just about the coolest thing ever, and it was totally fun to be a part of it... If only so I could run home, call my old friend Joel, and say, "HEY!!! I saw your movie at SIFF! Wahoo!!!!" :)

EXCITING FOLLOW-UP: So when I finally got to talk to Joel on the phone, praising him about his coolness, he was kind of shellshocked. He had just found out more info about the NEXT festival the movie will be screening at: The Nantucket Film Festival. Apparently Nantucket is screenwriter-centric, so he and his pal Keith will get a short film screenwriting award presented by... STEVE MARTIN!!!! If that wasn't enough, the fest then offhand told them when their short film would screen. A choice spot is to screen before a feature film, because more people see it than during a screening with only a collection of shorts (like I saw it). So, yes, their movie will screen before a feature. Yay! Which one? Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers" (starring Bill Murray), which just won an award at Cannes, and happens to be Nantucket's OPENING NIGHT FILM. Oh. My. God. How COOL is THAT????