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Pirates of the Canadians Add to ...

It was the kind of letter that can ruin a guy's day.

Late in November, Twentieth Century Fox fired off a blunt, one-page missive to Ellis Jacob, the Toronto-based chief executive of Cineplex Entertainment, Canada's biggest cinema chain.

Bruce Snyder, Fox's Hollywood-based president of domestic distribution, had spent the last few weeks steaming mad after his team pinpointed Canadian theatres -- primarily in Montreal -- as the source of illegal camcording of a steady stream of Fox blockbusters, including Borat, Eragon and Night at the Museum.

Snyder was sick of it. In the Nov. 30 letter, he warned Jacob, a friend and business associate for 20 years, to do something -- or he would.

Then he threatened to do something unprecedented in Canadian distribution history: Fox could stop sending copies of all its films to Cineplex Entertainment's 130 movie houses, with close to 1,300 screens. Or, Fox might decide to delay the Canadian release of popular films until a few weeks after their U.S. release.

In the letter, Snyder fumed that his company had discerned that, at one point during 2006, Canadian theatres were the source for nearly 50 per cent of illegal camcords across the globe: "Much like an out-of-control epidemic, those Canadian camcords . . . have become a leading source of worldwide Internet film piracy."

Jacob, whose company is the world's fourth-largest theatre chain in terms of revenue and fifth-biggest measured by locations/screens, felt physically ill. More so, he readily admits, because he recognized Snyder was absolutely right. Cineplex Entertainment -- in conjunction with the Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association (CMPDA), the RCMP and other movie chains such as Empire and AMC -- have been lobbying the federal government for years to make it a criminal offence to pirate films. But so far their efforts have fallen on deaf ears. Sophisticated thieves toting black-leather bags with remote zooms, monitor devices and infrared sound receivers, and wearing sweatshirts or jackets with special holes designed to surround the lens of a camera, are having a field day.

For the third year in a row, the U.S. government has placed Canada on its "watch list" for a lack of IPR (intellectual-property rights) enforcement, which means this country is in the same company as notorious film-piracy hubs such as Lebanon, China, the Philippines and Russia.

"We're doing everything we can, but we have problems with the government not doing enough," says Jacob. "We've caught people camcording in our theatres, but all we can do is tell them to leave, and they show up the next day again.

"In the States, you're criminally charged because it's theft. Here, if someone steals five DVDs from Blockbuster, law enforcement swoops down. But someone leaves my theatre with a pirated video in his pocket, and we can't get the police to come," he says.

"We want people to come to the theatre and enjoy the experience. We don't want to turn theatres into airport check-ins, but it might have to get to that point."

Reached by phone at his office in Beverly Hills, Calif., Snyder says he understands Jacob's frustration with Canada's lax laws. But he adds that unless Cineplex, other Canadian movie chains and the government crack down on film piracy, he will have to take matters into his own hands.

Snyder is also considering pushing Canada's theatrical release behind the U.S. date by a week or two. "At least we would then have a running start before we have to start competing with ourselves."

The U.S. Motion Picture Association (MPA) claims that in 2005 piracy cost American studios $6.1-billion (U.S.). In Canada, the CMPDA estimates its members lost $118-million (U.S.) the same year.

"What drove us to write that letter was the blatant and continuing camcording of our movies, primarily now in Montreal, but previously in Toronto," says Snyder, whose company, along with Fox Searchlight, is one of the largest distributors in the world.

"Canada is now the prime culprit in the world. Once we started busting people in New York, Detroit and Chicago, they figured out the place to be is in Canada. There simply aren't enough teeth in your laws."

In 2005, U.S. President George W. Bush signed the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act, which made camcording in a theatre a federal felony. John Fithian, president of the U.S. National Association of Theater Owners, adds that 38 of the 50 states have specific state laws that impose criminal sanctions against camcorder pirates, both fines and jail time.

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