Hyman Strachman -- Big Hy to his customers -- has made hundreds of thousands of bootlegged copies of the popular movies, from The Hangover to Gran Torino. One would think Strachman would be Public Enemy No. 1 to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), but on the contrary, this 92-year-old World War II vet is just looking to stay busy after the death of his wife in 2003, copying DVDs to send to American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Strachman is fully aware that he has more-than-repeatedly violated copyright laws, sending thousands upon thousands of films since starting his hobby back in 2004.
It's not the right thing to do, but I did it, Strachman admits. If I were younger, maybe I'd be spending time in the hoosegow.
Strachman doesn't accept any compensation from soldiers for his services, but what's more amazing is that he's never once received a notice from the government to stop his actions.
I thought maybe because I'm an old-timer, he said.
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A LIFE OF SERVICE
Strachman, a 5'5 man with white hair and a slight hunch, was born in Brooklyn in 1920 to Polish immigrants. During the Great Deprssion, Strachman left high school to work for his family's store in Manhattan, which sold windows and shades. He eventually went on to become a stockbroker on Wall Street.
When there were no computers, you had to use your noodle, Strachman said in his thick Brooklyn accent.
When Strachman retired from Wall Street in the early 90s, he spent most of his time with his wife, Harriet. They had been married for more than half a century, but when Harriet died in 2003, Strachman needed something to keep his hands busy. He eventually discovered a website that collected soldiers' requests for care packages, and found that one of the consistent requests was for more movie DVDs. It would be his honor to fulfill these many requests.
I wouldn't say it kept him alive, but it definitely brought back his joie de vivre, said Strachman's son, Arthur, who currently works as a tax accountant in New York.
For the first time since he served in the Pacific during WWII, Strachman felt camaraderie. He needed to help his brothers fighting abroad.
Strachman admits that he's never once ripped a movie from a store-bought DVD, and nor does he know how to. Originally, Strachman used to go buy bootlegged DVDs for about $5 in New York City's Penn Station, but he's since found a dealer at a barbershop considerably closer to home. Those discs were recorded illegally, either pirated in theatres or leaked studio-protected screeners.
Strachman used to copy his movies one disc at a time, which he said was moyda. To hasten the process, he invested $400 into a professional DVD duplicator that can make seven copies of a single movie at once. Since then, he's been able to copy hundreds of movies a day, using his long fingernails to separate the towers of blank discs.
To get his movies to the soldiers, Strachman stuffs 84 total discs into a single USPS fixed-rate box, and addresses the package to an Army chaplain. Strachman said it can sometimes take up to three months for his movies to arrive at their destinations.
Chaplains dont' sell them, and they fan out, Strachman said. The distribution is great.
Strachman feels guilty about violating domestic laws, but his service has resulted in plenty of happy customers. Soldiers have sent Strachman dozens of thankful letters, seven enormous American flags and plenty of photos of soldiers with their favorite DVDs from Big Hy. One note said, Our downtime is spent watching movies as we clean our weapons. Another note, which accompanied a flag from a combat mission in Afghanistan, said, I can think of no one more deserving than you, and no one who understands what this flag stands for and means to our veterans.
Every time I got back an emotional e-mail or letter, I sent them another box, Strachman said.
Strachman hasn't kept an official count on how many movies he's sent out to soldiers, but he believes that during his heyday in 2007 and 2008, he shipped out somewhere around 80,000 discs a year. He said he shipped 1,100 movies in February, calling it a slow month. In total, Strachman has shipped more than 300,000 discs in almost 4,000 boxes.
Capt. Bryan Curran, who recently returned from a stint in Afghanistan, believes that Strachman sent his outfits more than 2,000 DVDs between 2008 and 2010.
You're shocked because your initial image is of some back-alley Eastern European bootlegger - not an old Jewish guy on Long Island, Captain Curran said. He would time them with the movie's release - whenever a new movie was just in theaters, we knew Big Hy would be sending us some. I saw 'The Transformers' before it hit the States.
Another customer, specialist Jenna Gordon of the Army Reserve, said she handed out more than 2,000 DVDs in 2011 as a medic with the 883rd Medical Company, situated east of Kandahar City. Gordon described how soldiers would huddle around computers for movie nights, even as mortar blasted away in the background. She added that not everyone knew where the DVDs camer from.
It was pretty big stuff -- it's reconnecting you to everything you miss, Gordon said. We'd tell people to take a bunch and pass them on.
Not everyone is so thrilled with Strachman's actions. The MPAA says that billions of dollars are lost on the movie industry every year from DVD piracy, even though the most costly form of pirating occurs through online file-sharing sites.
Howard Gantman, a spokesman for the MPAA, said he didn't believe the movie studios were aware of Strachman's actions, but nevertheless swallowed his pride and supported Strachman. After all, who would attack a 92-year-old widower who loves his troops?
We are grateful that the entertainment we produce can bring some enjoyment to them while they are away from home, Gantman said.
Currently, Strachman is getting ready to ship off another round of packages to a platoon in Afghanistan, including 84 discs of Best Picture winner The Artist, as well as a few other popular films from this year like Moneyball. However, Strachman admits that his life as a pirate is nearing its end.
It's all over anyways -- they're all coming home in the near future, Strachman said of the troops abroad. I'm not sure who's going to be left over there anymore.
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