Theft Ain’t What It Used To Be

As many of you have probably already seen in the news, there was an audacious heist this weekend. But it wasn’t gold, or diamonds, or even drugs, and it wasn’t pulled off by masked men with guns or cat burglars.

Instead, someone sat at their computer and hacked a trading site called The Sheep Market, stealing the entire trading balance of Bitcoins, with a real-world market value that has been estimated anywhere between $5m and $100m. Since a lot of the trade on The Sheep Market – now bankrupt and closed down – seems to have been in illegal drugs, it may well serve their customers right. But the story does raise an interesting issue for screenwriters, which can best be summed up by asking a question –

How would you turn this theft into a heist movie?

Sounds promising. Clever thief, potentially shady targets, the victims tracking their attempts to launder the money across the web in real time… Until you try to dramatise the story into scenes – and realise every scene is going to be people staring at computer screens and hammering at their keyboards. (Which, I’m told, is not hacking actually works, but anyway…)

Theft used to be entirely personal. When Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor, he actually went into their houses or waylaid them as they rode through the forest. Then wealth accumulated in banks, and both in real life and in the movies, we moved to the Bonnie & Clyde model of bank robbery – and simultaneously branched out into the clever heist, as in Rififi and Ocean’s 11.

But we’re rapidly moving towards a world where money won’t be physical at all. So how are we going to write crime movies when there’s nothing to be stolen but zeros and ones in a secure computer file somewhere?

Art theft movies have been been out of fashion for a while now. I can see them making a comeback – but art and other object of value actually exist and can be physically taken, making for a dynamic and tension-filled story that’s easier to follow than the movement of theoretical numbers from account to account.

And of course, one of these days, someone will actually work out how to make a hacker-heist movie that actually works…

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4 comments on “Theft Ain’t What It Used To Be

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    We watched a good series not long ago that handled this task well but I’m blanking on the name. It was a British TV series, 3-6 episodes, from the last 10 years or so (I’m sure the Eye of London and IM Pei’s building were in the exterior shots), about a young woman working at a bank who is conned / pressured / blackmailed into transferring money for crooks. The mechanics of the theft were all about “pounding at a computer”, but the story managed to successfully focus on the people, relationships, and social engineering of the con. Ring any bells? The kid who masterminds the con is of South Asian descent, and he goes to a big, connected South Asian criminal for backing. I can see the actors faces but I’m blanking on everyone’s names. At any rate, the writers do a very good job of getting away from the keyboards and telling a story about active characters engaging with other people: it’s a good example for someone who wants to write a good “hacker story”.

  2. Shaula Evans says:

    After much sleuthing, I’ve figured out that the series I was thinking of was Wired, from 2008.

  3. Paul C. says:

    “Sneakers” 1992 was a good heist movie that involved computer technology and data control. I’d recommend it.

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