Semi-legal counterfeit bills

by Björn Schöpe
translated by Teresa Teklic

September 25, 2014 – You need high-quality counterfeit dollars? Well, there are specialists for that. No, we’re not talking gangland, but companies that manufacture prop dollars for legal activities: for film, TV or theatre productions. Sometimes, though, the true professionals here do such a great job that they enter a legal grey area.

Zachary Crockett has looked into the importance of prop money for Hollywood and written about the results of his research on priceonomics. In the early days of filmmaking, he says, producers still used real money. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a branch solely dedicated to manufacturing prop money came into being. And its products steadily increased in quality.
Due to the development of HD technology, the demand for deceptively real prop money has seen an enormous increase in the past years. There are two companies in Hollywood which meet the required standard: Early Hays Press and Independent Studio Services (ISS). If you need more than a banknote stuck on top of a paper block, that’s who you turn to.

While producing an action film in 2000, that’s exactly what was demanded. In one film scene, hundreds of thousands of banknotes were meant to be flying through the air, some of them in close-up. Perfect phoneys were needed. ISS provided them – and soon after received a visit from the Secret Service. Curious onlookers and bystanders had grabbed some of the banknotes after the crew had finished shooting the scene and tried to get rid of them in surrounding shops. ISS was in danger of being charged with the production and circulation of counterfeit money.

It didn’t help that the prop notes differed from genuine banknotes in 28 details, as the company’s director Gregg Bilson emphasises. Not without a sense of irony, the phoneys read “In Dog We Trust” instead of “In God We Trust”. But that explanation wasn’t good enough for the Secret Service. The authorities demanded that the company ceased the production of prop money on the grounds that banknotes could still enter circulation without being recognised as phoneys.

Bilson’s curt reply was: “Honestly, if you followed their (the FBI’s) instructions, you may as well use Monopoly money. Feature films demand a certain bar of quality, so everyone is asked to break law in a sense by making prop money.” In his article, Crockett even quotes a policeman, who warns against the ISS bills’ high quality. His conclusion: “If it’s green and it says ‘20’ on it, somebody will take it.” This particular law enforcement official at least does not seem to have much faith in his fellow citizens’ common sense…

Coins, on the other hand, do not seem to pose any problems in film and TV production, presumably because they still use real money. After all, coins are usually just small change, on TV as in real life. And when it comes to historical films, the average coin expert is upset by the products, film producers think to be replicas of ancient coins.

You can find Zachary Crockett’s article on priceonomics.

ISS still has its inventory of props on display online, but there are no more banknotes to be found next to machine guns and diamonds.

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