It was a Friday evening in 1975, and Woody Wise was driving from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, with his two kids in the car. He had picked them up from school in a rush, but they weren’t going on vacation. They were hiding out from the FBI.
While Wise was on the road, the FBI descended on his Burbank apartment, guns drawn, as his landlady would later tell him. Woody’s crime? Film piracy. The cops would make away with dozens of movies. But this being 1975, he wasn’t trading in DVDs or even VHS tapes. He was trading in film. Real film. Long before the internet’s bandwidth could handle the traffic of a single photo, Hollywood studios saw Woody and others like him as the Pirate Bay of the 1960s and ‘70s.
“The FBI had a real hard-on for me,” Wise told me recently when I visited him at his home on the outskirts of LA. “They thought I was the big guy, but I wasn’t the big guy.” Wise wasn’t the biggest name in the film piracy world of the 1960s. But he certainly was a name. And even the FBI couldn’t kill his obsessive love for collecting movies.
When it comes to media, we’re incredibly spoiled here in the 21st century. Is there a particular old movie or TV show you’d like to see? You can probably find it on DVD or a streaming service like Filmstruck. (Most of the time, anyway.) In the 1960s and ‘70s, if you didn’t catch something in the cinema or on TV, you were usually out of luck.
Unless you could find a pirated copy. There was a loose-knit community of pirates in the 1960s and ‘70s who would prefer to be called collectors. They operated in a gray area of movie legality, where handling a movie print outside of “official channels” set up by the movie studios probably meant that you were breaking the law. By the mid-1970s, the world of pre-video film and TV piracy quickly became a risky underground in which to participate. And in 1974 and 1975, at the behest of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the FBI was knocking down doors to shut down the film collectors who sold movies from New York to Los Angeles.
Even actors who just wanted copies of their own films got swept up in the raid. Actor Roddy McDowall, who played Cornelius and Caesar in the original Planet of the Apes movies, had his North Hollywood home raided by the FBI in 1974. The agents took 160 of his 16mm prints and over 1,000 video cassettes—many of which were movies that he acted in. No charges were filed in exchange for information about where he was getting his movies.
“They really wanted to make a statement,” Wise told me about the FBI raid that would eventually make him a felon. But it’s a felony that he doesn’t really mind too much, now that he doesn’t have to serve jury duty.
“My first love was projection. I wanted to be a projectionist and I was [a projectionist] at 14 at this old country theater,” the 80-year-old Wise told me as we sat in his living room in his home straddling the border of Glendale and Burbank.
Wise’s neighborhood holds the formal name of the Rancho-Equestrian district, but it may as well be in the middle of Kansas. It has stables, horse feed stores, and special lanes that look like bicycle lanes but are actually for horses. It even has a horse-themed cafe. Wise’s property, he told me, used to be the backyard of legendary actress Bette Davis where she kept her own Arabian horses. His house is a poster-filled shrine to the movies of yesterday.
“I ended up being an usher, then a manager, then I ran a theater of my own,” Wise said, explaining how he came to fall in love with movies in his small Virginia town Franconia, right outside of Alexandria. Many movie theaters in small towns were struggling during the 1960s, as they competed with people who might rather stay home and just watch TV.
“Theater managers don’t make a lot of money,” Wise said, so he developed a side-hustle. He started handling the shipping of popcorn and the film prints from the major studios to regional Virginia. Wise would travel about an hour to the major movie studios’ offices in Washington, D.C., twice a week to pick up new movies. Every studio had their own building with offices and a large shipping department underneath where all the 35mm film reels were stored.
Wise, a people person, quickly became friends with the shipping department guys in the film exchanges of studios like Universal, Paramount, and MGM in the process. “I love people, I love to have lots of people around, and I usually can get along with just about anybody. Even if they voted for Trump,” Wise told me with a laugh.
“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.
The practice of destroying film prints wasn’t invented in the 1960s, of course. When a movie was no longer profitable, having hundreds of prints around didn’t make any sense at all. In fact, it was a physical danger in the early days of cinema. Before the widespread adoption of “safety film” in the early 1950s, motion pictures used to be made using nitrate stock, a highly flammable material. It was so flammable that it was great kindling any time that studios needed to produce a huge fire scene in a movie. As the late film critic Carl Sandburg once wrote, “The next time you watch Atlanta burn in Gone With the Wind, realize that these flames are probably being stoked with movie history.”
And Wise’s buddies let him have first dibs at all the major studios, allowing him to pick and choose what movies he wanted to buy before they were scrapped or before any other underground dealers had a chance to get their hands on them.
“All these exchanges, whenever they did a major junk, I got to go in and cherry-pick everything. I might take 20 or 30 prints, and pay them 15 or 20 bucks for each. And then I’d sell them for 75 [each].”
“So that was the film collecting days, and I’m just one guy. This was happening in every major city,” said Wise. “I had that in, so I was known as a pretty big one.”
But Wise was getting more than $75. Records obtained by Gizmodo show that he was making as much as $575 per copy back in 1966.
I first came across Woody Wise by strange accident, working on a long-term book project about every single movie that the U.S. presidents have watched while in office. In the course of my research, I often file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with various government agencies about a given movie.
After I filed a FOIA request with the FBI to see if they had any documents on the 1963 James Bond film From Russia With Love (it was one of the last movies that John F. Kennedy watched before his assassination), my search was redirected to the National Archives. About a year later, I got about three dozen pages back. But the pages had just one mention of From Russia With Love. The files were actually about movie piracy in the 1960s. The FBI had been tracking a number of film collectors, dealers, and pirates during that period and From Russia With Love just happened to be one of the movies that were being traded. And Woody Wise’s name showed up.
Aside from a few books, there really isn’t much scholarship about what movie piracy looked like precisely in the 1960s and ‘70s before video went mainstream. There’s a fantastic book about the earliest days of movie piracy called Hollywood’s Copyright Wars by Peter Decherney and even one about movie collectors of midcentury called A Thousand Cuts by Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph. Finding these files by some happy accident felt like uncovering a strange piece of history largely forgotten by the popular imagination.
One of the most interesting things we can glean from the FBI files, currently sitting at the National Archives, is the price for various pirated films during that time.
For instance, a 16mm print of a film like Disney’s The Sword and the Stone (1963) would set you back $50 in the mid-1960s. Adjusted for inflation that’s roughly $195. But a film like West Side Story (1961) would cost as much as $575, or $4,475 adjusted for inflation. Wise made as much as that on one sale, according to archival FBI documents.
The file also includes an interview with one of the film collectors that Wise sold movies to through listings in the movie magazines of the 1960s.
But even with the FBI looking into his sales, Wise never got into any legal trouble in Virginia in the 1960s. At least none that Wise will admit to, nor any that I could dig up beyond the investigations at the National Archives. It wasn’t until Wise moved to Los Angeles that the FBI finally cracked down on the film pirates and he was just one of many targeted for distributing films illegally.
Wise was visiting Los Angeles frequently in the 1960s and arrived to live permanently in 1973, first working at the Harold Lloyd Museum in Beverly Hills. The legendary silent-era comedian died in 1971, and the Harold Lloyd Foundation turned his estate, known as Greenacres, into a museum to celebrate his life. But it was just too out of the way to sustain itself as a museum. But all the while, Wise was selling films from his collection of “pirated” movies to collectors all around the country. He’d even place ads in all the movie collector magazines of the time advertising what he had available.
Wise contends that he wasn’t doing anything wrong dealing in original junked prints in the early 1970s. These film prints were, after all, just going to be thrown in the trash. But he was finally charged with interstate transportation of stolen goods. It was his sale of a single 35mm print of the 1968 William Wyler film Funny Girl, starring Barbara Streisand, that the FBI decided to charge him with.
“The FBI had a little bit of trouble getting at me number one because it wasn’t stolen, even though they technically got me on a stolen print. I purchased it. I never stole anything. But there’s a very fine line there from the copyrighted film to showing something that you don’t have a right to show or sell.”
“Today, everybody’s selling film prints.”
And Wise is right. Just take a look at eBay and you’ll see tons of people selling old 16mm and even 35mm films quite out in the open. Back in the late 2000s, I bought a few 35mm film trailers for myself just because of the novelty of having some 35mm film lying around to cut up in various art projects.
“I had opened the store on Highland Avenue called Hollywood Poster and Bookshop and out of the back I was dealing in 16mm prints,” Wise tells me about one of his many endeavors in collecting and selling movies in the 1970s. “This guy in New Jersey was actually making new prints of things like Goldfinger and I’d get it in and sell it out of the backroom.”
Woody tells me that his video store on Highland Avenue opened in 1975, but after the FBI came calling, he let his partner take it over.
The big fish that the FBI was supposedly after was whoever was selling prints to South African film distributors. There was a cultural boycott of the country led by the United Nations, and the FBI was sweeping through the American film collector community trying to figure out who was supplying Hollywood films to theaters in South Africa. The major media companies, including Hollywood studios, weren’t sending films to the country in protest of apartheid, but amoral characters in the film collecting community were making a lot of money by shipping prints to South Africa for the black market. Or, in some cases, having South Africans pick up prints in Los Angeles.
But Wise maintains he had nothing to do with the trade in South Africa, and was only convicted for sale of stolen property and copyright violations.
“I never sold anybody a print that would be used for exhibition,” Wise said. He only sold to private collectors of 35mm and 16mm prints, even if his sales were on the wrong side of the law. But the judge gave him a break.
“I was a single dad with two kids, so the judge [...] he said ok, I’m going to give you a year,” Wise said. “I got a chance to plead and say, ‘Look, I’m a single dad with two kids’ and he gave in and let me off with a big fine.”
“I had a fine and was on probation for five years and during that time I went into real estate and did video on the side,” Wise said referring to the late 1970s.
Wise went into the video business and says he gave up on dealing in film prints completely. He had a video store in Burbank called Discount Videotapes (later called Hollywood’s Attic) and began only selling to collectors in things that had fallen out of copyright.
“I dealt only in old films. Old public domain war films, westerns, cowboy movies, anything...” Wise told me. He was also doing his own duplication of films—strictly of public domain movies, he swore. “I was doing all my own duplication.”
The October 23, 1981 issue of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner even ran an article about Woody about the legality of his movie duplication business, explaining that the films that had fallen out of copyright were perfectly legal to sell.
“I put ads in all the little movie magazines and started building up a mail-order business (four years ago) with Republic Westerns and rock concerts, which had no problem at the time,” Wise told the Herald. “There are a lot of rock concerts, like (performances by) the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, that were considered in the public domain but have since become illegal. I don’t sell those anymore.”
Instead, the heart of Woody’s video business was public domain movies like Roy Rogers’ earliest Westerns, and films like It’s a Wonderful Life, which accidentally fell into the public domain because the movie studio forgot to renew the copyright. Incidentally, that’s why the movie became a Christmastime classic. When the 1946 film was made, copyright law said that a movie could be copyrighted for 28 years and then, if renewed, it could be copyrighted for another 28 years. When It’s a Wonderful Life’s original copyright expired in 1974, the studio forgot to renew it, and TV stations around the country started playing the movie at Christmas. The film was considered a flop in 1946, but became a classic after decades of TV stations playing it, for no other reason than the fact that they could do so for free.
But even back in 1981, while Wise was promoting his home video business, couldn’t help but romanticize the magic of watching films on the big screen.
“Seeing them at home is still nothing like sitting in the theater and watching a movie,” Wise insisted to the Herald.
Wise retired in 2004 and sold his video businesses.
In the earliest days of movie piracy at the turn of the 20th century, the concern was about profits lost by corporations. Everyone was stealing each other’s movies in the 1900s and 1910s, whether it was making dupes, or sometimes just shot-for-shot remakes of films. Some people even made remixes of movies by splicing together, say, a Charlie Chaplin boxing movie like 1915’s The Champion with undersea footage. Seriously. The demand for movies in the US and Britain was enormous, so filmmakers were constantly stealing ideas, and sometimes just making a physical film copy of a flick.
Most people are familiar with the controversies that surrounded the emergence of VHS—it was quite the scandal in the early 1980s that Americans might be able to record TV programs and movies right off their own TVs. The movies studios insisted that if VCRs had a record button, people would never pay for content anymore. That didn’t turn out to be the case, but the studios still believe they have a lot to lose today with film piracy becoming easier and easier online. Estimates vary wildly, but the movie industry insists that it loses anywhere from $1.3 billion to $6.1 billion to movie piracy globally every year.
That’s why they’ve cracked down on torrent sites like The Pirate Bay and Kickass Torrents as the people who run those sites run from the law. Artem Vaulin, the alleged owner of Kickass Torrents, was arrested in Poland in 2016 during a layover on a family vacation from his native Ukraine to Iceland. When we think of movie piracy here in the early 21st century, it’s almost exclusively in the form of ones and zeroes. The FBI and other global police agencies have tried to clamp down on the sharing of movies through cyberspace, but whenever they shut down a website like Pirate Bay or Kickass Torrents, another site seems to pop right up to take its place. But Wise’s story reminds us that movie piracy didn’t begin with the internet. You can still find people hawking bootleg DVDs on the sidewalk in America’s biggest cities. And movie piracy is as old as the invention of movies itself. It was just a bit more complicated before the VCR and the internet were invented.
These days Wise volunteers at Warner Bros. studios backlot museum. And he does it just to be close to the movie history that he adores.
“Just to be on the lot—where a lot of my favorite actors were [...] you gotta know what that feels like,” he told me.
Wise also has a movie club that he’s kept going since the mid-1980s. They call themselves The Cliffhangers, named after the serialized action movies that they grew up with, like The Lone Ranger, Zorro, and Dick Tracy. Wise is the de-facto leader of the group and the nine members of The Cliffhangers meet at his house every other Saturday to talk movies, and watch both serials and at least one feature film.
There’s even a low-budget documentary that was made about Wise’s tight-knit movie club called the Brotherhood of the Popcorn, which you can stream on Amazon and buy on DVD, but it doesn’t include anything about Wise’s experience with film piracy. That being said, the documentary is a great look at his movie club and the sense of community that movies can achieve in a very analog way. Today, we often find like-minded film and TV fans online, debating theories and celebrating pieces of moving picture culture in the digital realm. But when you watch Woody and his friends talk about old movies at Woody’s kitchen table it’s hard not to get swept up by the idea that there was something more romantic about an era when you couldn’t find like-minded people with just a few clicks. Woody and his friends discuss and debate the films of their shared history. And I’d consider myself pretty damn lucky if I had a movie club like his when I’m 80.
Shortly before leaving I get a full tour of his house, and Wise shows me the screening room where his Cliffhangers meet. It has big comfortable chairs, large 6-sheet movie posters covering the walls. We then head to his office filled with even more posters, plenty of books and DVDs, and an old-fashioned popcorn machine. I notice a new release of the 1941 Edward G. Robinson film Sea Wolf on his desk, but the cover of the DVD case is strangely black and white.
I gesture toward the DVD, mentioning that I hadn’t seen that movie yet and Wise tells me, “Yeah, that’s a new one. I cheated and made a copy. A friend of mine got it.”