Media that finds its way online before their intended release have always been a part of the file-sharing community. Known as prereleases, big named movies that appear on BitTorrent or the Newsgroups are always high profile cases. Some of the most anticipated and popular movie events are landmark cases in prerelease history. The March 31st leak of” X-Men Origins: Wolverine” one month prior to its scheduled release goes down as perhaps the most significant of these events. According to online sources, the movie is incomplete but watchable. Many of the special effects are supposedly unfinished, as wires holding the actors are apparently still visible.
When a movie such as “The Love Guru” is prereleased, the event causes some stir, but the circumstance is incomparable to the investment placed in movies such as X-Men or the Star Wars prequels. As a result, when a movie such as Wolverine is found floating around BitTorrent, just about every mainstream media resource is reporting the story. The frenzy surrounding the prerelease of Wolverine is the most intense and on par with the prerelease of the Star Wars prequels and Ang Lee’s 2003 “The Hulk”.
That’s because Fox has a lot riding on this movie, about $150 million by some estimates (actually budget figures haven’t been released). The major question then becomes, what impact will Wolverine’s unprecedented 1 month prerelease have on the studio’s ability to not only see a return on their investment, but to make all the trouble worthwhile and make a decent profit?
To know the answer to that question, we’ll need to take a look backwards at some milestone prerelease events. The most significant and comparable prerelease events are the early arrivals of “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (AOTC)”, Ang Lee’s “The Hulk”, “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith(ROTS)”, and “American Gangster”.
The 2002 release of AOTC was preempted by this film appearing online about 2 weeks early. This was the first time a big budget movie was available to wide audience. In 2002, BitTorrent wasn’t nearly as popular as today; however, there were other mechanisms, such as FastTrack and the Newsgroups that provided a popular avenue for this film’s distribution. Additionally, broadband had begun making significant inroads, which made downloading a large movie file (700 MB or more) more practical.
Although George Lucas and the studios were furious at the film’s leak, AOTCs had no problem recouping its $115 million investment. AOTC opened #1 in the North American box office, and reaped nearly $650 million in worldwide revenue.
Looking to avoid another leak, security was tightened when ROTS came to theaters in 2005. It appears that George Lucas and Fox’s efforts paid off, as ROTS was not prereleased until a few hours prior to its theatrical run. Regardless, the BitTorrent tracker EliteTorrents still featured this torrent early. The response to this event set the protocol for future prerelease enforcement.
The movie industry immediately enlisted the help of the FBI, who helped investigate the leak. The administrator of EliteTorrents, who was ultimately responsible for prereleasing the movie, was arrested the next day. Scott and a co-administrator pled guilty to and were convicted of two counts of criminal copyright infringement, ultimately spending 6 months in federal prison and an additional 6 months under house arrest.
Despite the entertainment industry’s rhetoric, Lucas’ investment of $113 million ultimately paid off as AOTC saw a return of nearly $850 million in worldwide revenue.
American Gangster wasn’t quite an event movie like Star Wars or Wolverine, however, this movie takes a special place in prerelease history. Two weeks prior to the theatrical release, a screener copy of exceptional quality appeared online. The Russell Crowe/Denzel Washington flick had received critical praise and was highly anticipated. There were fears that the early release could damper sales of this rather expensive film.
If there was any impact on the movie’s box office performance, it wasn’t nearly enough to make the film unprofitable. The movie, which had a $100 million budget, saw worldwide revenue total $265 million. The return margin wasn’t as dramatic as the Star Wars prequels (nor could it be expected) , but it the movie opened still opened at #1 in North America and proved that prereleased films could still draw large crowds.
Ang Lee’s 2003 release of “The Hulk” appeared online at least 1-2 weeks early. The movie had a budget of $135 million – a very expensive price even today. It was no surprise that news of this prerelease caused panic in the movie industry. It was the second big leak following AOTC, and this time, fears of a box office bomb came true.
“The Hulk” opened in North American theaters at #1 with an opening weekend of $61 million – not bad but well below expectations. Then disaster struck; the film’s second weekend saw revenue of only $18 million, a drop of nearly 70%. The film never recovered at the box office, bringing in only a marginal return of $245 million in worldwide revenue –about $20 million less than American Gangster.
However, it’s unlikely that piracy had anything to do with The Hulk’s embarrassing performance in 2003. More likely, fans were unsatisfied with the quality of the movie, as many felt the movie lacked depth. Indeed, The Hulk wasn’t necessarily a bad movie; it simply lacked the story development featured in blockbusters such as Spiderman or The Dark Knight.
The super-blockbuster The Dark Knight wasn’t prereleased, but a relatively high quality version appeared one day after the theatrical release. This did little to change The Dark Knight’s massive $1 billion worldwide revenue (budget was ~$185 million). File-sharing networks often take the heat for prereleases and leaks, but more often than not, these leaks are the result of an insider. You can’t expect to throw a bag candy in a kindergarden class not it to be devoured. The real blame, if there is such a blame that exists, belongs to the security flaws that allow this to occur. But in the end, it’s doubtful an early leak changes a movie’s revenue. If Wolverine is a good movie, the studios have nothing to worry about.