In what is probably one of the worst security breaches of a film's copyright yet seen in Asia, pirated DVDs of MGM's "Bulletproof Monk" have surfaced in Hong Kong and Malaysia more than four months before the film's official release in the region.
Sources said the pirated DVDs are believed to have been manufactured in Malaysia. The sources also said it appears the film was recorded illicitly during a test screening in the United States. To date, no screenings of the film have taken place in Hong Kong or Malaysia.
The recording, according to sources, is of inferior quality, with the shadows of heads in front of the camera and the sound of audience laughter and noise. A segment at the start of the movie is also believed to be missing.
It is being sold by vendors in Hong Kong for HK$20 ($2.60). The film stars Chow Yun-fat, one of Asia's most loved and respected actors, and is produced by John Woo (news).
Peter Adee, MGM president of worldwide marketing, confirmed Monday that the company test-screened "Bulletproof Monk" once with MGM execs present, and have conducted a couple of press screenings without the ending to the film.
"Bulletproof Monk" is in postproduction with some reshoots still scheduled.
"Piracy issues become more and more of a problem as time goes on," Adee said. "We work hard to keep it from happening but sometimes you cast your fate to the wind when you screen your film to audiences."
"Bulletproof Monk" marks the first Hollywood collaboration between Chow and Woo, who formed one of the most successful partnerships in Hong Kong in the '80s and '90s with such hits as "A Better Tomorrow" and "Hard-Boiled." The film is expected to open in the spring in the United States, according to MGM's Web site.
Motion Picture Assn. spokesman Rich Taylor said Monday that the organization had no independent confirmation that "Bulletproof Monk" had been pirated.While it is unusual for a motion picture to hit the streets before it is in its final release form, Taylor said it had happened before.The availability of the pirated DVDs is expected to seriously affect the boxoffice of the film, which was expected to be a big Easter release in Asia.
Hong Kong's Golden Harvest holds distribution rights to the film in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
Teerachai Triwongwaranat,Golden Harvest's head of film distribution, confirmed the presence of the pirated DVDs.
"We are in discussions with the studio (MGM) to see what happens next," Teerachai said.
With no posters available for the film as yet, the pirates have designed their own DVD covers with a picture of a bald Chow Yun-fat captured from the screen. The DVD also comes with subtitles in simplified Chinese, which is the common written Chinese in mainland China and Singapore. Hong Kong and Taiwan uses traditional Chinese characters.
"This should be proof piracy is no longer Asia's problem," said one major Hong Kong industry insider, who preferred not to be named.
"It's a multimillion-dollar business, and the pirates have a network all around the world. So it's not fair to only accuse Asia of being a piracy center. A lot of the supply comes from the U.S."
Malaysia has become the leading exporter of pirated optical discs, which include CDs, video compact discs and DVDs. The country has the capacity to churn out a half-billion optical discs a year, of which domestic consumption would account for only 20%.
Most Asian territories have tightened security in recent years in an effort to thwart piracy, which is rampant in much of Asia.
In Hong Kong, for example, legislation has been passed outlawing the use of video recorders and other photographic equipment in cinemas.
Hong Kong producers also have been taking extraordinary safety precautions for film processing and special screenings. Michelle Yeoh (news)'s summer actioner "The Touch" was sent for processing in two cities in two batches to avoid the complete print from falling into pirates' hands.
And with Zhang Yimou's recent "Hero," distributors also took the unprecedented step of searching bags and asking audience members to deposit any electronic equipment capable of capturing images during a preview screening.
As a result, pirated copies of both films were not out on the streets until four days after each film's release.
But with Hollywood productions usually released in the United States before Asia, pirates are sourcing copies made from recordings in U.S. cinemas where no security measures are in place.
Asian distributors for Hollywood productions are increasingly calling for simultaneous releases, but the need for subtitling and dubbing does not always allows for it.