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Films' Fake Cash Can't Look Too Real

Props: After bogus bills get into circulation, Secret Service turns them into money losers for two Valley firms.


As CEO of one of L.A.'s few prop companies that prints dummy currency for the movies, Gregg H. Bilson Jr. walks a fine line between counterfeiting laws and producers' demands for the most realistic bills possible.

But when the auteurs of a big action flick recently blew up about $1 billion worth of Bilson's fake bucks--sending them fluttering into the hands of folks who later passed them--the Secret Service came calling, ordering Bilson to stop making the phony lucre and send a recall letter to every production company that bought the stuff because his bills looked too real.

With Bilson's main competitor afraid to print more fake cash after a similar federal confiscation last year, local prop masters now say the funny money supply is drying up, inflating concerns about on-screen realism and the possibility that filmmakers will turn to less reputable sources that are more difficult to monitor.

"It's unfortunate," Bilson said. "This is yet another reason for people to say, 'Well, we're going to take our production to Canada.' " Even so, the Secret Service--which, in addition to protecting the president, safeguards the nation's money supply--is taking no chances with the main manufacturers of movie cash: Bilson's Independent Studio Services Inc., and Earl Hays Press, both in Sun Valley. The feds offer no apologies for confiscations of prop bills that have cost the two companies tens of thousands of real dollars.

"They thought they'd followed the rules," said Chuck Ortman, an assistant special agent in the Secret Service's Los Angeles office. "In reality, the product they were producing was just too close to genuine . . . [and] notes were successfully passed."

The authentic-size bills seized by agents are illegal, authorities say, because federal law requires that reproductions be 75% or smaller, or 150% or larger than the size of real bills. If colors other than black and white are used, only one-sided copies may be made, and negatives, plates or disks of the bills must be destroyed after use.

But bills meeting those standards look like "play money" on the screen, and sophisticated audiences demand realism, said Pam Elyea, co-owner of History for Hire, a North Hollywood prop house.

"The props our businesses rent out are more realistic-looking than they used to be," Elyea said. "But the more realistic they look, be it fake money or weapons, the easier it is for the general public to be confused with the real thing and the more problems that it poses."

Cody Cluff, who heads the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., said run-ins with law enforcement involving props typically involve the use of guns, city seals and police badges.

"Law enforcement and legislators have to be aware of the industry's need for realistic-looking props," Cluff said. "On the flip side, it would behoove Hollywood to understand that blowing up $1 billion worth of fake money might not be a wise decision."

Most movie money has easy-to-spot deficiencies. The bust of Benjamin Franklin may be swapped for an anonymous character closer to David Crosby, while "In God We Trust" is often substituted by "For Motion Picture Use Only."

Those giveaways did not stop people in Las Vegas from scooping up the ISS-produced money fluttering around after the explosion scene for the film "Rush Hour 2," Bilson said. New Line Cinema spokesman Steve Elzer said the movie's producers were "cooperating fully" with the government's investigation of the incident.

Ortman said 19 intact bills have since been passed in the Las Vegas and Los Angeles areas, with one attempt reported in Minneapolis. The Secret Service slapped the company with a cease-and-desist order in March, barring further production of the bills. ISS was also ordered to collect any similar outstanding bills, so Bilson sent registered letters to all of his clients asking for their return. Agents, who seized more than $180 million of the money in Las Vegas, have since taken $22 million in fake cash from ISS.

The most recent tensions between printers and the government began about 18 months ago, when members of a heavy metal band threw a large amount of Hays-produced money to a crowd at a Florida video shoot, resulting in the confiscation of the company's entire stock, said Hays co-owner Ralph Hernandez Sr.

About six months later, the Secret Service came knocking again after one of the industry's oldest prop houses, Ellis Props & Graphics, put a stash of fake Hays bills up for sale on the Internet, Hernandez said.

Federal officials downplay the crackdowns. Movie money is in many ways the least of the agency's worries in Los Angeles County, where about $100,000 in counterfeit bills is passed each week, making it one of the most active markets in the country.

"It seems every couple of years this [movie] money shows up," Ortman said. "They'll even put 'For motion picture use only' on it. But son of a gun, if it's green and it says '20' on it, somebody will take it."

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