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Swept up in a piracy fight

Hanna Hertelendy, 84, has no idea how illegal copies of a film screener tape sent to her wound up for sale.

March 06, 2004|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

She has been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for four decades, since the day Oscar-winning actor Gregory Peck, a one-time academy president, handed her the papers and invited her to join.

In an era when Oscar voters often rely on DVDs and VHS tapes to judge Academy Award contenders, she prefers to watch films the old-fashioned way -- in a theater on the big screen.

But two days before the Academy Awards, 84-year-old retired actress Hanna Hertelendy found herself in the midst of a very modern predicament: her name was linked to an FBI investigation of movie piracy.

A VHS academy screener of director Tim Burton's quirky comedy "Big Fish," which authorities say was shipped to her by Sony Pictures Entertainment in December, had been converted to DVD format and put up for sale on the Internet.

"How could this happen?" Hertelendy said last week. Sounding upset, she put down the phone to rummage through academy screeners in her Fairfax district apartment.

Moments later, the widow, who still speaks with the accent of her native Budapest, was back on the line: "I don't have 'Big Fish.' I've got all the others here. 'Finding Nemo' is the closest. It's like a fish, no?"

Hertelendy, whose credits range from movies such as "Being There" and "The Girl from Petrovka" to TV movies like "Raid on Entebbe," said she never received the "Big Fish" tape -- let alone signed for it. And she says she has no idea how it fell into the possession of a Sherman Oaks man, William C. Philputt, who was charged last week with criminal copyright infringement and satellite signal programming theft.

"Is he an actor?" she asked.

Hertelendy herself has not been charged. Assistant U.S. Atty. Christopher Johnson, who is prosecuting Philputt, said it is "conceivable" that Hertelendy never received the screener. "Right now, she is not a suspect," the prosecutor said.

Hertelendy said she was so distraught at finding herself caught up in Hollywood's aggressive anti-piracy campaign that she spent last weekend trying fruitlessly to get through to academy officials on the phone. As the celebrities in designer gowns and tuxedos paraded along the red carpet leading to Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, Hertelendy was "worried sick" that her membership in the academy -- "my second home" -- might be in peril.

As part of the industry's effort to crack down on movie piracy, Hertelendy and thousands of other academy members signed a contract last year promising not to reproduce, distribute or take outside their houses or offices any of the screeners sent out by the studios and smaller independent companies for Oscar consideration.

But from that point, policing the screeners became what academy President Frank Pierson said was a "leaky process."

Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis said some members are so concerned about what to do with their screener tapes that "they are backing over them in their driveways so that they're totally destroyed."

The academy's board of governors recently booted out another member, veteran film and TV actor Carmine Caridi, after he admitted sending a friend a screener of "Something's Gotta Give" that turned up for sale on the Internet. (No charges were filed against Caridi, but federal authorities charged his friend with copyright infringement, and both men face civil suits.)

Davis said he would have "appreciated the courtesy" had Sony given the academy a heads-up that another of its screeners had been linked to a piracy case. "But we didn't get that," he said.

Sony spokeswoman Susan Tick said the studio immediately alerted the FBI and, because it was a legal matter, did not share the information outside of law enforcement. "Our goal was to go after a seller that was making available unauthorized copies of one of our movies which was still in the theaters."

By midweek, Davis said, a member of his staff had talked to Hertelendy and determined that her case appears to be different from Caridi's.

"It apparently involves one tape," Davis said. "No one has shown me that she signed for that particular tape. We certainly are never going to accuse a member who didn't sign for a particular tape with a violation of the agreement."

Prosecutors said they don't know how Hertelendy's screener got into Philputt's possession, and that it's not relevant to their case against him.

The FBI got involved after an undercover investigator working with Sony paid $20 for a pirated DVD copy of the movie that was advertised for sale on an Internet bulletin board. Sony later determined that the DVD contained secret markings that were identical to the ones on the screener sent to Hertelendy.

Hertelendy said that because of a lingering illness, she has left unopened all of the screeners she received and did not even vote for the Oscars this year.

"They leave the tapes in front of the door," she said. "Some I signed for, some I don't have to. When they come, they ring the bell and I come down and sign.... One UPS man knows me for how many years? He just leaves the thing in front of the door." She said she sometimes leaves a Pepsi-Cola for the mailman. "I have a lot of mail always."

Sony said it was checking its records to determine whether Hertelendy had, in fact, signed a Federal Express receipt. Tick said: "All we know is that somehow a copy of the screener that we sent to her ended up for sale on the Internet. What we don't know is how it got there. The last thing you want to do is disrupt the life of an 84-year-old woman if she hasn't done anything wrong."

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