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When sharing runs afoul of the law

Two East Coast synagogues that showed the Orthodox movie 'Ushpizin' have run up against intellectual property rights.

November 26, 2005|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

While shooting the Israeli film "Ushpizin," Gidi Dar's critically acclaimed fable about the power of faith, filmmakers adhered strictly to the rules of Orthodox Judaism, vetting the story with rabbis and declining to shoot on the Sabbath. But when two U.S. synagogues recently screened foreign DVDs of the movie, they ran afoul of Hollywood's own orthodoxy: to charge admission requires permission.

Picturehouse, distributor of the film, threatened legal action in a letter to the Chabad Center of Passaic County, N.J. To educate the public, the company also placed ads in publications such as the Jewish Journal. Though the matter was settled amicably this week, the episode provided a glimpse into a clash of cultures over the issue of intellectual property rights.

"Screenings like this erode a substantial part of our revenue," said Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse, a joint venture of HBO and New Line Cinema. "Chabad is charging admission: $15 in advance, $18 at the door.

"This is probably naivete and enthusiasm, not deliberate piracy. Still, in the end, we have to protect the filmmakers and the owners."

"Ushpizin," which opened Oct. 19, marked the first time the Orthodox Jewish world in Israel had admitted cameras, he said. The star and screenwriters are members of the community, as is much of the audience.

Because some Orthodox Jews consider theaters off-limits, Picturehouse conducted a grass-roots campaign, setting up special showings -- one at a Brooklyn high school and another at a kosher wedding hall in Monsey, N.Y. Conforming to religious tenets, men and women were seated separately.

The same day as the Nov. 12 Monsey screening, Congregation Oheiv Yisorel, also in Monsey, scheduled its own "Ushpizin" screening. The DVD was legitimately purchased online, according to organizer Daniel Yaniv. And the $10 admission fees were channeled into the Israel One charity and the synagogue's Hanukkah toy drive, he said.

"We advertised the movie to various synagogues through an e-mail campaign and hung up signs in local bagel stores," Yaniv said. "Before embarking on this path, however, we obtained permission from a Picturehouse distribution executive."

It's not a case of naivete but miscommunication within their ranks, said the congregation's Rabbi Alfred Cohen, whose group agreed not to show the film again.

Of more concern is Chabad's Dec. 10 "Ushpizin" screening of an Israeli DVD bought at a Brooklyn video store.

"There are entrepreneurial types selling foreign DVDs in neighborhoods catering to Russians, Chinese, Israelis -- a black market, of sorts," said Marian Koltai Levine, executive vice president of marketing for Picturehouse. "It's a gray area. Do you prosecute or not? Piracy is a major problem, both here and abroad. While no one in Israel was exhibiting 'Ushpizin,' it was being illegally downloaded online. When the director took out an ad saying this was stealing, people started sending him money -- they just didn't know."

The Chabad Center, in Wayne, N.J., thought the film would make a perfect draw for its Dec. 10 Melava Malka, a dinner celebrating the Sabbath. "You are cordially invited Saturday night to Cafe Chabad for a private screening of the acclaimed 'Ushpizin' and a Middle Eastern buffet dinner," the invitation read. The admission fee wasn't for the movie but covered the cost of the meal, said Michael, the director of the center, who declined to give his last name.

"What's the difference between showing the movie to 25 people in my home or showing it at the synagogue?" he asked. Advised that DVDs contain a strict prohibition against publicly exhibiting the product, he said he hadn't read the fine print.

On Tuesday, Chabad arrived at a settlement. The event will go ahead as planned, but Picturehouse will get a percentage of each ticket sold -- as in theaters.

"I'm not interested in a fight with anybody," Michael said. "I'm the chaplain of the Passaci County prison. You think I want people to visit me there? I'm happy. They're happy. Everything is fine."

Berney is expecting similar challenges as the film, currently on 31 screens, spreads out nationwide.

"This experience might increase awareness about the way intellectual property rights work," he said. "Those considering a similar move, I hope, will have second thoughts."

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