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Film Piracy Saga Is Pure Hollywood

A distributor believes her movies are being counterfeited. She writes a script, finds actors, hires a gumshoe and tracks down a suspect.

June 25, 2006|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

After six months on the trail of a suspected Russian pirate, Joan Borsten was closing in.

She had staked out the scruffy-looking young man she thought was strangling her film distribution business. Now he was in her sights. Borsten peered out through the curtained windows of a minivan as a private eye she'd hired snapped photographs using a telephoto lens.

Click. The suspected pirate appears with a customer (actually a friend of Borsten's) who'd just bought 80 counterfeited DVDs of titles Borsten owns.

Click. The buyer and the seller shake hands.

Click. The target jumps into his BMW SUV and drives off.

Could it be that he was getting away?

What happened next was the culmination of Borsten's tireless crusade to save her Malibu-based film distribution business from a suspected piracy ring with ties to Russia. With the help of a detective named Jake, an actress playing "Natalya" and Oleg Vidov, Borsten's real-life husband, who was once known as the Robert Redford of Soviet-era cinema, this 58-year-old grandmother masterminded an amateur sting operation.

"I don't think he had any idea of who he was going up against," Vidov said of the man they believed was running the piracy ring. "She is a street fighter."

Major Hollywood studios aren't the only victims of movie piracy. Ask the owners of Southern California's many small production and distribution companies, and they'll tell you their very survival depends on curbing counterfeiting. But saying it needs to be stopped is one thing. Doing it is another.

That's what sets Borsten apart. The Santa Monica native is a short, spirited woman who is fluent in five languages and harbors a passion for Russian fairy tales.

She and her husband used their actor friends and their knowledge of the Russian emigre community to infiltrate a world that often confounds even Hollywood's anti-piracy agency, the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

Borsten owns the international distribution rights to a library of 1,200 Russian animated films, including "Little Locomotive From Romashkovo," "Tale About Czar Sultan" and "Vasila the Beautiful." She sells DVDs of these titles to small specialty stores that serve Russian communities around the country.

But in December, she noticed a sudden drop in Los Angeles-area orders to her company, Films by Jove. Worried, Borsten visited a bookstore in Studio City and posed as an American woman buying cartoons for her adopted Russian grandchild. She found half a dozen pirated versions of Films by Jove videos, including one of her favorites, "I'll Get You," a Russian Tom and Jerry-type series.

The videos appeared to be homemade. Each had the same make of case, photocopied color inserts, and poor picture and sound quality. They sold for $10 each, about half the normal retail price.

"I was shocked. There was no way that we were going to sit back and lose the second-largest market in the U.S. to a pirate operating out of a Hollywood pick house," Borsten said, using the industry lingo for a piracy operation. "I had to get to the bottom of it."

It wasn't the first time Borsten and Vidov had taken action to protect their business. During the last decade, they've been involved in numerous legal battles to protect copyrights on their film library, which includes a Russian-made feature-length version of Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" and a series of animated folk tales with the voices of American, French and Spanish stars.

First, Borsten asked a Russian friend to visit other Russian video shops and bookstores in West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. The woman bought several bootleg videos of Film by Jove titles and reported that store owners had told her to come back in a few weeks, when they would receive a new supply.

Borsten suspected that the stores were buying from a single supplier. Next, she had to find him.

So she and Vidov, who is also her business partner, wrote a script featuring a character called Natalya, who is described in court records as an "unscrupulous hard-edged businesswoman looking for bootleg tapes at the cheapest possible price."

Vidov put out the word among Russian actors he knows and soon found an actress who was perfect for the part: "She has a really good range. She can play a peasant woman or a princess." And this "was the best role in Hollywood."

Embracing the role, "Natalya" chatted up store owners and soon came up with a cellphone number of the supplier of illicit cartoons. His name was Dmitry. Store owners said he was importing pirated movies direct from Moscow's notorious counterfeit market, the Gorbushka.

Next, Natalya called Dmitry. She said she and her husband, "Andre," were opening a Russian video store in Palo Alto and wanted to buy some cheap DVDs. Dmitry agreed to meet with Andre (in actuality another friend of Borsten's) in the parking lot of a Carl's Jr. restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

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