If you’ve been following this column, you may be surprised at the diversity and depth of films which are available on bootleg video. But here is something that you may not have considered (and something that I never thought about until the other day): which was the first movie to be bootlegged? It only makes sense that all of these pirating hijinks had to begin somewhere.

The art and commerce of bootlegging actually goes back to the dawn of the motion picture industry. The victim of these shenanigans was Georges Méliès, a French filmmaker who singlehandedly put magic into the movies. Prior to Méliès, movies were a novelty without much of a purpose. The earliest films were basically recordings of average everyday life — and as most people can attest, average everyday life is not worth paying admission to see projected on a screen.

Méliès, both by planning and accident, brought trick photography and editing to the nascent film orbit and turned out a seemingly endless skein of charming and comic fantasies. His most famous production was the 1902 landmark “A Trip to the Moon.” This is believed to be the first science-fiction movie, and even viewed today it has more personality and style than many a CGI-clogged offering. Based on the Jules Verne story, “A Trip to the Moon” follows a group of astronomers (all wearing silk top hats and carrying umbrellas) who board a bullet-shaped rocket to the moon. The lift-off is assisted by a squadron of chubby showgirls who pause to wave at the camera after their work is completed (funny, but you don’t see that at NASA). The trip itself is rather rapid and ends with the most famous sick joke in movie history: the rocket landing smack in the right eye of the man in the moon, leaving splatter all over his face. The moon exploration brings the astronomers in contact with weird lizard-like creatures who jump around in wild acrobatic motions. The astronomers escape and return home to Earth, bringing a moon creature with them who is imprisoned in the name of science.

Méliès literally did everything: direct, produce, write, act (he plays the lead astronomer), edit, design and create sets and costumes, and distribute his films. But it was in the distribution side of the business that the problems began.

Méliès was breaking new ground and had no precedent to follow in regards to distribution. Rather than leasing prints to theaters, he sold prints of his film. Once the prints were out of his hands, he had no control over the property and the profits that might arise from repeated screenings. It did not help matters that the people who ran the exhibition side of the young film industry were ruthless and frequently dishonest, and the practice of making illegal duplicates of prints began during this period — with Méliès as the first major victim.

Complicating matters was the lax copyright laws in the United States. American exhibitors and distributors sold and resold Méliès’ films without acknowledging his ownership. There was no enforcement of the copyright laws, and things became so intense that Méliès actually sent his brother Gaston to New York in 1902 to set up an American distribution office to manage the release of “A Trip to the Moon” and his other films.

But sadly, Méliès’ efforts were in vain. “A Trip to the Moon” was the first major film to be widely bootlegged and Méliès lost a great deal of money due to the pirates who ran amok with his work. Suffering as well was “A Trip to the Moon” itself — the quality of illegal dupes made a mess of Méliès’ crisp cinematography, and many copies of the film that are available today are difficult to watch because they came from duped prints and not the original materials.

For a man devoted to creating fantasy, Méliès found his later years blunted by harsh reality. His films fell out of fashion by the early 1910s and World War I effectively sealed off the international distribution of his productions, ending his movie career. He continued to work in theater until 1925 when he went bankrupt. His whereabouts were unknown until 1929 when he was discovered selling newspapers on a Paris street corner. His final years were somewhat more comfortable, with honors from the French government and a job selling toys at a popular retail kiosk in Paris. He died in 1938.

As for “A Trip to the Moon,” the film has been a public domain title for many years and anyone who wants to make copies is free to do so. Orson Welles was inspired by it and put the film in his 1946 Broadway production “Around the World in 80 Days,” which was produced by Mike Todd. When Todd decided to make a film version, he canned Welles but kept Méliès’ film, which is included at the beginning of the Oscar-winning production.

With the spread of home video, “A Trip to the Moon” has turned up in numerous silent film anthologies (usually in the poorly duped prints). A century later, it is still being seen–albeit in the bootlegged version that helped drive its creator into ruin!


IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

Discuss The Bootleg Files in Back Talk>>>

Posted on March 6, 2004 in Features by

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