Spoiler Warring: The Battle Over Superhero Set Secrets

Public stunts, drone battles, obsessed bloggers, and tireless New York City photographers.

Flickr / dkshots

Spider-Man has somehow maintained his secret identity since he first appeared in 1962, but the latest movie starring the wall-crawler never stood a chance at enjoying that kind of anonymity. From its start last summer, the set of Spider-Man: Homecoming was beset by real-world Peter Parkers, long-lens cameras and iPhones in tow. The movie went by the code name “Summer of George,” a nod to a classic Seinfeld episode, but few people who saw signs near the set thought Jerry and the gang were reuniting on Staten Island.

“My nine-year-old nephew with a smartphone can figure out what any movie code name is; it doesn’t take much,” Mike Fantasia, the film’s location manager, tells Inverse. “Within a couple days of Spider-Man getting that name, people figured it out.”

Every movie set has its own code name, so that people involved in the production might be able to operate in some degree of secrecy. It’s the name under which locations are reserved, offices are rented, and equipment is purchased, so the more obscure the better, especially in big cities with stargazing pedestrians and resourceful photographers. But for comic book and sci-fi productions, secrecy is a pipe dream thanks to an informal network of fans, photographers, loose-lipped production assistants, and obsessive bloggers. Soon enough, rumors collide with the sheer size of blockbuster filmmaking, and projects in production have early audiences.

Whenever they had to film on location in New York, the Spider-Man producers basically knew they didn’t have a prayer at keeping the shoot on the down-low.

“It’s awfully hard to scout a location five or six times over the course six months in secret,” Fantasia says. “The property owners hear what you’re talking about, the guy next door hears; plus you’ve got 20 people scratching their heads looking at a fire escape, inspecting it, climbing on it, measuring it, putting tresses on it. So three hours before we showed up, there were 500 or 1,000 people in the parking lot across the street with their cameras, ready for the action to happen.”

To some degree, movies are asking to be spoiled by trying to operate in secrecy in broad daylight, especially when taking over blocks and creating a commotion. But many onlookers aren’t just locals, hobbyists, or curious geeks who want to catch a glimpse of how movie magic is made. The huge fan base of blockbuster sci-fi franchises is insatiable, devouring any information — both verified and fourth-hand speculation — that might reveal where the series is headed next. Actors in these movies and shows are quizzed like prisoners of war during unrelated press appearances, pumped for information about the next Marvel, DC, or Star Wars movie; even the vaguest responses make headlines.

And so photographic evidence — of cast participation, plot points, or even set decoration — can drive major traffic to entertainment news sites, which creates ad revenue. It’s an age-old journalism strategy that would surely get the approval of J. Jonah Jameson. A picture that reveals a new costume design, especially for a popular character, can set the day’s agenda for a corner of the internet.

With that in mind, the reporters and freelance photographers chase these scoops hard, creating an entire cottage industry with high stakes and higher price tags. The demand fuels a source of income for photographers like Steve Sands, a seemingly ubiquitous New Yorker whose name dominates Getty Images wires. Sands has gotten the big shots at VIP events and movie sets in New York for the better part of the last three decades.

“The actors know that I am here to help them,” he says. And for Sands, the optimal outcome is mutually beneficial: hHe makes the actors look good, and the photos fetch nice prices.

“Paps usually ask for four or five figures, sometimes even more,” Umberto Gonzalez, a prolific scoop-chaser better known to internet fans as El Mayimbe, tells Inverse. “It’s more than what a small publisher, like most superhero sites, can afford. No publisher in my space has ever paid that high for those. … The Us Weeklys and TMZs of the world have those kind of budgets, not superhero sites.”

Gonzalez is one of the more prominent figures in the geek news space. He wrote for a site called Latino Review, launched a genre news blog called Heroic Hollywood, and also now works as a reporter for the online trade site, The Wrap. He initially made a name for himself by consistently beating out trades like The Hollywood Reporter to scoops, circumventing the well-oiled studio publicity system by tapping a network of unconventional insiders. He took tips from people up and down the hierarchy, establishing relationships with set security guards, doormen, and delivery men — the people that saw things and had no agenda or profit motive — along with development executives, agents, and publicists.

The equal opportunity tipline brand of geek journalism that Gonzalez helped pioneer upended the traditional Hollywood news flow and led to studios reassessing and then beefing up the security around their most precious franchises. New procedures and protocols were adopted to prevent plot leaks and casting list rumors, both at corporate headquarters and on set.

“In the old days, you would find call sheets blowing around on the ground, but now they have gotten real tight,” Fantasia explains. “A lot of studios don’t distribute hard copies of anything; they email watermarked copies to their people. If you’re coming into the office, you sign a non-disclosure, you can’t take pictures if you’re a guest, you’re restricted as to where you can go and what you can see.”

And yet, leaks of information persist. So the companies making action movies sometimes have to resort to some of their own minor “crime-fighting” schemes.

“I know one company that put fake call sheets around because the paparazzi were finding out exactly where they were everyday,” Fantasia reveals. “They made sure that a couple of crew members got the special call sheets, with a couple of things a little bit different. Paparazzi went to a specific location and there’s no film company. The company had a PA there to see who showed up, so they knew that so-and-so was leaking the information, and they let him go.”

Producers on movies shot mostly in studio complexes, on big sound stages and in front of green screens, should in theory have less to worry about in the way of paparazzo. But again, photos still seem to get out, first on social media, and then Hoovered up by the blogs. Along with on-the-ground measures like metal detectors and phone checks, facilities are going high tech to battle the risk of spoilers.

How Star Wars Stops Leaks

The head of Pinewood Studios said in late 2015 that the facility, which hosts production of the Star Wars and James Bond films, held a security exercise to figure out how to combat drones that were being flown overhead by paparazzi to capture photos outside of sound stages. One report early last year even suggested that Lucasfilm was investing upwards of $4 million to protect The Last Jedi when it shot on location in Croatia. A local media outlet there relayed that the company had hired an army of security guards and fought fire with fire by commissioning drones to combat sneaky photo drones that would hover around the set.

But launching a small-scale war in the skies is not an option for those shooting on public streets in New York and other major cities. And given the intense interest, they’d likely be outgunned, anyway.

“We shot in Queens on Spider-Man last October, and this one location where we had Peter Parker hanging off a fire escape four stories up, there were 3,000 people lined up under the subway line across the street to watch,” Fantasia marvels. “Another sequence, we had Spider-Man swing underneath a helicopter a hundred feet above the ground. There was a local paparazzi, he went and set up in a parking structure a couple of blocks away. He shot away all day long, and of course the photos were up before midnight.”

Fantasia says that precautions are taken, with security teams monitoring sets and the actors, who sometimes wear giant parkas to avoid notice. And security can get aggressive, too — just ask Sands, who says he sometimes has to resist private security guards who want to remove him from public places.

“Take a photo of the equipment outside the set and you’ll have guys telling you that you can’t take any pictures,” Sands says. “They’re protecting the story. And of course, I bust it all the time.”

Having photographed the city for so long, Sands has plenty of friends and connections who help him figure out when and where to be. That gives him some leverage when he finds himself in showdowns with the hired guns protecting superheroes (many of whom, like Jessica Jones star Krysten Ritter, he says he considers friends). He quarrels mostly, he says, with Netflix productions; most other films and TV shows that film in the city are more willing to let him do his work.

“They tried to throw me out of a park during filming on The Punisher, but I had already taken some video the day before showing the end of the whole series,” he says. “I really didn’t like it when they got the cops to throw me out. I said, ‘OK, I have this really nice video showing how The Punisher series is going to end, and I’m going to put the whole storyline together. They said, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Try me.’”

When reached by Inverse, Netflix, which will stream The Punisher this coming fall, declined to comment on Sands’s allegations.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 18: Actress Krysten Ritter (C) and guests attend a cast and crew discussion with Marvel's 'Jessica Jones' 

Getty Images / Nicholas Hunt

Sands — who notes that Punisher star Jon Bernthal has always been gracious and helpful to him — grows agitated when location managers and producers try to block him off in public spaces. Using those spaces comes with a responsibility that he doesn’t think is being met by some movie and TV production crews, compounding the conflict.

“They’re filming in New York, so it creates a lot of jobs, and the city certainly benefits from it,” he says. “But it should be made very clear to the movie companies that they are a guest of the city. They don’t own the property. In the end the government is responsible because they manage the property for the people and the constitution applies.”

Sands finds himself at odds with private security more than the NYPD. Productions of most sizes are required to hold permits from the city to shoot in parks and on the street, and they’re all legally cleared to do that work. But to Sands, those permissions shouldn’t close the spaces off to everyone else, including photographers who want to get shots of the actors.

“The movie unit cops are pretty good — it’s a special detail, and most of the lieutenants have been really good with the First Amendment,” he says. “Sometimes they make decisions I’m not in agreement with, but I’m glad they’re there. But the Parks Department should know that the parks aren’t film studios, or an event space. They’re mutual use parks for everybody.”

Having a legal background helps Sands not only when confronted by security, but also by the white collar enforcers working for various studios.

“Some might argue it’s karma because I’m sure Marvel thinks I’m stealing their images, their license,” he says, noting that he has no problem with the comic book company or its film studio. “Some people have threatened to sue me for copyright violation for photographing on set. And I said, ‘Go right ahead. Make my day. File a frivolous action and see what happens.’”

And so keeping the details of a superhero movie or TV show secret can become daunting. Knowing that casting news, plot points and photos will inevitably reach the public one way or the other, PR teams have begun trying to feed the beast, instead of starving it, putting the material out on their own terms.

“Studios are all about controlling the message and do indeed, in my opinion, put out better official photos than the ones offered by paps,” Gonzalez says. “For example, at the Marvel event a while back announcing the upcoming movie slate, they put out the first look at Black Panther and were ahead of the curve of any bad set stuff put out by paps.”

Comic-Con is the hub for these kinds of reveals, with studio publicity teams whipping friendly crowds into a frenzy with appearances by actors and teaser trailers that parcel out morsels of new information. And Disney, which owns Marvel and Lucasfilm, has taken this approach to the next level.

The company runs its own biannual event called D-23, which celebrates and offers up new tidbits about all of its properties, from the geek brands to theme parks and animation studios. And the annual Star Wars Celebration, which just took place in Orlando, is more or less a four-day live-streamed infomercial for the franchise, with panels delivering news and updates that lead up to the debut of movie trailers.

While Gonzalez still chases casting scoops and plot points, he’s got no problem with studios revealing multimedia themselves. Not only does he get good photos for free, it means he doesn’t have to worry about “headaches” from studios — who often ask him to take down paparazzi photos — or legal action from photographers and other film sites. Sands himself has no qualms about suing bloggers who post his photos without paying for them.

Between the free sanctioned photos and the legal hassles, Gonzalez finds himself bothering with set photos less and less.

“Unless the set photos reveal the first look at an actor in a superhero costume, they don’t really pay off trafficwise anymore like they did in the early days,” Gonzalez says. “I’ll just wait ‘till someone else [buys them] then link to them in a clever way without using the picture.”

And yet, distributing high-res photos of superheroes and action stars at conventions and through email blasts hasn’t entirely stemmed the demand for photos taken on set. There is only so much a studio is willing to reveal in advance, because it might otherwise spoil the plot, and the timing of production often means that things are shot before the next big convention center event. The growing universe of comic book movies and TV shows also means there are far more costumes and storylines to be leaked.

Instead of playing an endless cat and mouse game, Fantasia, the location manager, says he prefers to work with photographers. There’s more security measures in place now, but there is also a “grudging acceptance” of the inevitability of set photos on the part of studios and production companies. It makes it easier for him to find a happy medium, leaving more time for his actual work.

“You sort of make friends with the devil,” he says. “My philosophy is, these guys only sell one or two photos, so you give them one or two photos to get the fuck out of your hair. The more you chase them away, the more they’re gonna go around you, the more energy and time you gotta spend on them. If you are on a city street, the actors are gonna be seen, so you tell the paparazzi where to go to get the best shot.”

Fantasia will sometimes tip off photographers, letting them know in advance where the movie will be filming an action scene later in the day. “I’ll tell them, ‘In the second sequence, we’ll be out here, he’s gonna run from there to there,’” he adds. “If you sort of feed them a little bit, they leave you alone and you get your work done.”

Even with a modicum of control over when and where the photographers take their shots, what’s even more important is optimizing what they shoot. The costume reveals are big not just for bloggers, but also for studios, so crew on set are careful to make sure that when those photos leak, they’re seen in the best light possible.

“You sort of manage it the best you can and you know that, ‘Okay, it’s going to be visible at this location, make sure it’s really fucking good,’” Fantasia says. “Make sure the costume is right on. Make sure you got the right stunt man doing the sequence so it looks good.”

Still, there will always be tension as long as photographers want more access than productions will cede. Sands says that he had another frustrating interaction at the set of The Punisher the day after we first spoke, so he released some of his exclusive photos on Getty Images. Each photo, including action shots of Bernthal in plain clothing and sliding over a cop car, is available for $575 apiece.

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