Clay Liford is an independent filmmaker living in Austin, TX. He has written and directed several shorts (such as My Mom Smokes Weed and Earthling) and the features Earthling and Wuss, and shot/edited over 20 other features, including St. Nick and Gayby. His latest feature, Slash, world premiered at SXSW 2016 and is currently on the festival circuit. You can follow him on Twitter here.
I’m the least confrontational guy I know, but sometimes the internet gives even someone like me road rage.
I got an email early this week from a filmmaker pal, Bryan Storkel, asking simply if I’d “seen the Reddit post yet.” I’m not in my twenties, so the answer was naturally no. But I followed the link he’d sent and discovered possibly the most bizarre and labyrinthine story in which I’ve ever been (unwittingly) involved.
The post originated with a production company that had recently hired a cinematographer by the name of “Frankie Hopkins,” based on the strength of his show reel. I assume what followed was that Frankie showed up and did a terrible job. Then, I further assume, the company decided to dig a little deeper. As I would later convey to Frankie himself, the internet stores data, lots and lots of data, which makes fact-checking ludicrously easy. With the power of Google, the breadth of Frankie’s deceptionquickly became apparent.
Since 2009, Frankie and his fraudulent company, Level 3 Pictures, have been orchestrating quite the Intellectual Property heist. His M.O. is to find fully available short films and commercials on Youtube and Vimeo, sites susceptible to the sort of free software that allows you to actually download HD copies of streaming videos to your hard drive. Frankie would then strip off the original titles and credits, replacing them with his own “cast” and “crew” and doing the original film the great honor of giving it a new title. He’s done this to at least 15 filmmakers at the time of this writing. I was one of them. I was on a list of “victims” on the Reddit post. A post that currently has around 200 responses.
In fall 2008, I shot the first short film I was truly proud of, My Mom Smokes Weed (above). To my surprise, it found a rather large audience and played more than 50 international festivals, including Sundance. The provocative title made the film (with no widely known actors) fairly high profile. When Frankie got his mitts on it, he rebranded my kidnapped movie, Patty Hearst-style, with the terrible moniker Smoked. (Smoked is probably the biggest departure among Frankie’s title changes. Often the stolen films have only slightly altered titles: Orange Drive became Lucky Drive, for instance.)
Frankie’s bizarre (and rather scary) kidnapping methodology seems to have something in common with that of an ‘80s movie serial killer. If you monitor Level 3 Pictures’ website or Facebook page, you’ll soon discover the insane amount of time and planning he seems to have put into each movie’s capture and eventual modification. I’m speculating here, but I imagine a scenario that goes like this…
Frankie stalks the internet, looking for his next movie to kidnap. He finds a candidate. (In my case, I have a sneaking suspicion he found My Mom Smokes Weed when it was featured on Short of the Week. Many of the victims seem to come from there.) Frankie next “captures” the original video, and then the true craziness goes into hyperdrive.
Facebook sorts items chronologically, and Frankie uses this to great effect. Once he has his intended movie, he starts casually posting about the great new script he’s about to produce with his longtime partner, David Lutter. (All of us “victims” strongly believe Lutter to be Frankie using another account. Oh, and Frankie often has very long Twitter conversations with this alter ego.) Once he’s established his start date, Frankie slowly doles out production set reports. Choice nuggets like “Great First Day on Smoked!” are always followed by either a stolen and repurposed behind-the-scenes shot from the original film or, in some even wackier cases, a completely fabricated BTS still (ostensibly featuring Frankie) which conveniently obscures anything that would prove he wasn’t actually there. And then, assuming you’re dumb enough tohave actually made a trailer for your original film — and God forbid, posted it on YouTube — he takes even that from you. Of course, he gives it the same treatment as your full movie, and then uses it to promote the imposter. This all leads to the main event: the release of his latest masterpiece.
This obsessive and time-consuming process, along with the fact that Frankiealso has all these films listed on his IMDb page (and the rabbit hole goes deeper — each of the fake films has its own IMDb page), convinced me that this wasn’t some sort of Banksy-like prank. I mean, none of us “victims” has that much notoriety. I suppose that makes it slightly easier to rip us off, but again… internet.
So I decided that, from the relative safety of my laptop, I’d confront this fraud. There were already several webpages dedicated to Frankie’s crimes (Frankiefraud.com being the most well-known), but nobody had really harassed him. I felt like I needed to take the fight to him, so to speak. However, the little voice in the back of my head, the one that keeps me out of trouble, started reminding me of the very real possibility that “Frankie” (if that’s even his real name) might be severely mentally unstable and/or dangerous. Where I’d normally back off, this time something emboldened me. I’m still not exactly sure what it was. Perhaps the fact that as I began to engage Frankie on a personal level, people on social media started following the unfolding story as if it were Benghazi or something actually important.
What I did was “Like” and “Follow” every form of social media connected to either Frankie Hopkins or Level 3 Pictures. Then I sent really sarcastic “fan messages.” After I’d made my presence known to Frankie — which I could tell because he’d delete my posts as soon as they went up — I made first contact. I sent him a Facebook message I never expected him to respond to. This led to the craziest online chat I’ve ever had. Frankie actually wrote me to defend himself. He claimed to have never heard of My Mom Smokes Weed. When I told him about the Reddit feed, he boldly claimed that his law team was in the process of sending the tiny mom-and-pop site a cease-and-desist letter! It got even more surreal from there. I eventually posted our conversation in its entirety on my own Facebook page, and Frankie subsequently blocked me from writing him anymore.
So I took the fight to the next front, Twitter, and this is where it went viral. For whatever reason, Frankie engaged me — as well as all of my friends and every filmmaker he’d stolen from who called him out. I’ve made lots of fast friends in the last few days. I feel like I know all Frankie’s victims. We’ve become a mutual support group. We trade new tidbits of personal info we’ve discovered about the elusive thief. There was even talk about pulling a classic prank and sending a boatload of pizzas to his residence. In the end, though, I decided to draw the line at social media.
So what’s the endgame? For Frankie (who, I literally just found out before I wrote this sentence, may be an expelled Academy of Art student by the name of Patrick Rasmussen), I really have no clue. I asked him point blank, and it’s the one question to which he never responded. I’m very cognizant of how modern fame and press work. But though more people know the name Frankie Hopkins now than ever before, and though this kid possibly thinks this is a good thing, there truly is such a thing as bad press.
The question I should probably analyze more than any others is, what’s the endgame for me? This is where I have to step back and take a hard look at myself. I would be lying if I said I didn’t take some glee in roasting this obvious fool, who threw back in my face multiple chances to confess and apologize. When I proposed a truce, Frankie seemed to want one — until he realized that my conditions included taking down all his stolen videos. And the attention critique applied to Frankie also applies to myself. Hell, this is more free press than I’ve had in years. I’m about to launch into my next feature, and frankly (sorry), every little bit helps. Am I wrong to exploit this situation for personal gain? Perhaps. But I’m also making the best out of a personal loss. Intellectual Property may not come with a physical mass, but it is indeed something that can be taken away from you. Not only did Frankie illegally download my work, he made an attempt to obscure and possibly eradicate my authorial presence, which is the only real currency left to me in a weightless world of digital art. So yes, if I can get something back, something beyond just a simple “win,” then I’m all for it.
Frankie — or Patrick, or whoever this guy is — has been confronted with the truth multiple times since the start, back in 2009. And his reaction has always been the same: anger and denial. Is Frankie dangerous, unhinged, disturbed, mental? I don’t know. Should that affect how I handle him? Possibly, and also, I don’t know. This is most likely where I leave this saga. Frankie and his Level 3 Pictures have been shamed into professional oblivion, and not just by me. An online groundswell thundered forth to smite this person, whom none of us know in any other form than a series of ones and zeroes. I’ve hopefully helped reduce the chance of this happening again just a little (and I’m not the key protagonist here; there are plenty of other filmmakers fighting Frankie). I doubt Level 3 Pictures is going to report many more new projects soon. This has been weird and crazy and disturbing and, sadly, fun. But we all have movies to make. Possibly even, at some point in his maturation, Frankie. So let’s hop to it.