How 1960s Film Pirates Sold Movies Before the FBI Came Knocking

Before home video, movies would roll out slowly, arriving in small towns months after their release date. Since theaters usually had one screen, it would only play for a few days. If a film was a hit, it'd be re-released a few years later. A movie had to be pretty old before it hit TV, and if you missed it, you just missed it. But if you were fortunate enough to have your own projector, you could buy an illegal copy of your favorite film. It was neither simple nor cheap because there wasn't any easy way to reproduce bazillions of copies of 35mm or 16mm film, yet there were people who managed to get their hands on films and made quite a profit. Movie theater operator Woody Wise tells how he got started as a movie pirate.   

“When a movie breaks back then [in the 1960s], they put it in like a hundred theaters,” Wise explained. “And, of course, that’s film. That’s 100 films. After two or three weeks, they only need like 20 and [the movie studios] pay tax on every print that’s in the room... so they have to junk 80 prints—they have to throw them away. So you can kind of guess the story there, when I find out they’re throwing these things away....”

Wise said that when he found out they were just tossing film prints in the trash, he started to offer the low-level employees in the shipping department at the movie studios a few bucks to take them. At first, it was just a single movie from time to time.

“Well, that grew,” Wise said in an understated way. The guys in the film exchanges in Washington, D.C., his friends, were more than happy to make $25 here or there for something that the studio was just going to throw in the landfill.

Wise sold movies for up to $575, which would be over $4,000 in today's money. But then the FBI found him. Read about Wise's adventures in the movie business, both the legal and illegal side, at Paleofuture.  

(Image credit: Michelle Groskopf/Gizmodo)

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