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HBO Cracking Down on 'Game of Thrones' Watch Parties at Bars

Tracy Swartz
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

The civil war between HBO and bars is not new but has become recently heated as HBO has battled piracy of the popular Game of Thrones, which drew a record 8 million viewers for its season 5 premiere this month.

It’s not a nerd prom without a little disappointment. Geek Bar Beta in Chicago’s trendy Wicker Park neighborhood was planning on having a blowout for the “Game of Thrones” season premiere earlier this month.

There were going to be costumes and product giveways and of course, televisions showing the premiere of HBO’s fantasy drama. This was the first opportunity Geek Bar, which opened in October, had to show a live “Game of Thrones” episode so the free party was promoted on Facebook to attract new customers.

But it also attracted the attention of HBO, which sent a letter March 27 to Geek Bar, telling the bar not to show “Game of Thrones” at its April 12 premiere party because HBO shows are not allowed to be screened in public.

“It’s like they’re thumbing their noses at geeks,” Geek Bar owner David Zoltan told the Tribune. “The geeks are the core audience. Without the geeks, ‘Game of Thrones’ would have never gotten this far.”

Geek Bar is not the only establishment to be told “Game” over. HBO has been cracking down on bars that have been airing episodes of its bloody drama including a Brooklyn bar that received a cease-and-desist letter from HBO last week, according to media reports.

HBO spokesman Jeff Cusson said in a statement that HBO is a pay subscription service that “should not be made available in public establishments. When it does happen, it is of particular concern when there is an attempt by such places to profit off of programming on the service.”

The civil war between HBO and bars is not new but has become recently heated as HBO has battled piracy of the popular “Game of Thrones,” which drew a record 8 million viewers for its season 5 premiere this month. A decade ago, HBO sent cease-and-desist letters to bars and restaurants, including some in Chicago, that showed “The Sopranos.”

A Northwestern University law professor said it is HBO’s right to threaten penalties because screenings of the show at bars can be considered unauthorized public performances, which are illegal under federal law.

“You can have friends over (to watch the show) but when you’re at a bar with people, many of whom of are strangers, that’s different,” said Northwestern associate professor Peter DiCola, who specializes in music copyright law. “If you’re a bar owner, your disagreement is with Congress, not with HBO.”

But Zoltan said his beef is with HBO. He said the cease-and-desist letter was a “huge surprise” because “Game of Thrones” is so entrenched in geek culture. And even despite the letter, multiple “Game of Thrones” posters decorate the walls and windows of Geek Bar.

“We love the show and it’s part of what the people are talking about in the bar,” Zoltan said.

So on Sundays, Geek Bar closes for a private event at 8 p.m. Eastern, which is the time “Game of Thrones” airs, Zoltan said. The bar stops serving food and drink. As to whether “Game of Thrones” is screened at the bar, Zoltan is coy.

“What happens at that private event is anybody’s guess,” Zoltan said. “We have to be very careful. We can’t afford to fight HBO’s legal team.”

It’s unclear how many Chicago bars show “Game of Thrones” to their customers. Sean Loftus, bartender at Burlington in Chicago, said the bar hosts “Game of Thrones” watch parties every Sunday; one party even went viral last year after Loftus videotaped the bar’s reaction to a particularly gruesome death.

Loftus said he thought the screenings are legal because the bar does not charge a cover for the party and the TV’s screen is smaller than 55 inches but HBO rules don’t mention anything about TV size. Loftus did not respond to requests for further comment.

Owl Bar in Chicago, which recently advertised a “Game of Thrones” party, did not return requests for comment.

HBO’s legal tactics have scared off at least one bar owner. Fat Cat owner Cy Oldham said she tried to get HBO a few years ago to show “Game of Thrones” at her Chicago bar but was told by her DirecTV representative that bars are not allowed to have HBO.

Oldham said it wasn’t worth the risk of showing “Game of Thrones” illegally even though her bar has found success hosting “Mad Men” and “Walking Dead” watch parties. Oldham said AMC, which airs both shows, has been “very supportive of the showings.”

Oldham said about 50 people pack into the back room of her bar each Sunday to watch the shows and partake in the corresponding themed food and cocktails, representing about 15 to 20 percent of her Sunday business. Season premieres and finales draw 150 patrons, Oldham said.

“There’s something definitely about viewing parties and people talking about (the show) during the commercials,” Oldham said. “I think those (TV shows) are the type of things that people like to share with other people.”

For those bars that do show “Game of Thrones,” Frank Janisch has some advice: “Have good lawyers.”

Janisch, former owner of Frankie J’s, used to host elaborate “Sopranos” watch parties including re-enactments of previous episodes at his Chicago restaurant until HBO notified him.

Janisch said he ducked HBO representatives for as long as he could and once he received the cease-and-desist letter, by fax, he stopped showing the HBO mob drama immediately.

“Them slamming the door on me really stung me pretty good,” said Janisch, who now lives in Arizona. “Literally, HBO whacked me.”

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