At a recent showing of ‘‘Big Fish,’’ several moviegoers at a local theater held up camera-equipped cell phones and took snapshots of the screen. Doing the same with a video camera will soon be a crime.
Along with other several states including California, Ohio has at Hollywood’s urging passed a law that lets police arrest people for videotaping movies in theaters.
The new statutes augment a film industry antipiracy arsenal that includes bag searches for people entering movie houses — a multifaceted response to technological strides that make digital video distribution a snap.
Some analysts say that with such tactics Hollywood is shooting a political blunderbuss that could backfire. The movie industry, they say, should be more concerned about the illegally copying of films by its own.
A recent AT &T Labs study found that three of every four movies leaked on the Internet came from industry insiders — a trend that motivated the Motion Picture Academy of America to temporarily stop sending ‘‘screener’’ tapes and DVDs to Oscar voters.
That kind of digital piracy ‘‘is much more of a threat than someone sneaking in with a video camera,’’ said David Joyce, media analyst with Guzman & Co.
Ohio’s bill, signed in December by Gov. Bob Taft and taking effect in March, gives movie theaters the right to detain people suspected of videotaping movies, just as a department store can hold a suspected shoplifter.
A similar law took effect Jan. 1 in California. Michigan lawmakers introduced legislation in December, and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania passed equivalent bills in 1999.
‘‘It’s the same way an honest consumer is hurt by shoplifting,’’ said John Fithian, president of North American Theater Owners.
Increasingly, studios are also beefing up security around movies. At the Arena Grand Theatre in downtown Columbus, security guards hired by the studios regularly check patrons’ bags, especially during sneak previews of new films.
At a preview for ‘‘Honey,’’ guards walked through the darkened theater wearing night vision goggles to check for cameras.
Yet the October study by AT &T Labs questioned the impact of camera-toting movie pirates. Researchers created a list of the 312 most popular movies released between January 2002 and June 2003.
After locating 285 of those movies on the Internet, researchers used software to look for evidence of their origin., such as visible boom mikes in scenes, a sign that the copies were unedited versions. They also looked for watermarks on film or text on the movie itself, such as phrases ‘‘For screening purposes only.’’
Their conclusion: 77 percent of the films came from insider sources, either motion picture companies or theater employees taping from the projection booth.
‘‘Our initial thoughts were how easy it is to get these copies from the movies,’’ said Patrick McDaniel, one of the AT &T researchers. ‘‘The data set we did didn’t actually show that to be true.’’
Vans Stevenson, senior vice president for the Motion Picture Association of America of the MPAA says the researchers used flawed data. The movie industry says its internal analysis last year found that 92 percent of recently released movies found on the Internet came from camcorders.
Fithian, of the movie theaters association, takes a softer view.
‘‘There’s no doubt that piracy comes from multiple sources,’’ he said. ‘‘My reaction is to attack piracy at every source . . .’’