Recently, there was a huge flap over the unauthorized leak of a workprint copy of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" to the online bittorrent universe. The producers and stars expressed outrage and dismay, and vowed to find the source of the leak. Industry pundits speculated about how badly--not if--this unauthorized debut on March 31, 2009 would hurt the official release of the film on May 1, more than a month away.
"Wolverine" went on to enjoy an astounding $85 million opening weekend, placing it firmly in the summer blockbuster club occupied by previous "X-Men" films.*
It is my belief that this fracas represents a fundamental misunderstanding of today's movie going audience, and the rapidly evolving movie industry that it patronizes. The people who have the technical know how to utilize the bittorrent file sharing system--geeks, like me--also want to see these movies in the theater--if they're good. So why download and trade these films? Because we can. Geeks have huge egos, and nothing feeds that ego like being the first kid on the block with the newest toy, latest, greatest, highly-coveted gadget, or the unreleased movie. The hacker spirit runs through all geeks, whether they are actual hackers or not, and we all covet the forbidden fruit. We are fed by the rush of doing, seeing, or having that which we are not supposed to. Not because we want to hurt anyone or cause damage, but because we can.
But just because we get off on having something before everyone else doesn't mean that we don't enjoy other things, including the theater experience. No matter how good your theater setup is at home, you just can't duplicate the energy of sitting in a theater, smelling popcorn and cheering with a huge crowd. So what does it mean when "Wolverine" gets leaked a month early and still dominates the weekend with an $85 million opening? I'd say it means that most of those geeks who downloaded it early also went to the theater and saw it. I'd be willing to bet that those same geeks will end up purchasing the movie when it comes out on Blu-Ray.
So what's the MPAA's (Motion Picture Association of America) REAL "problem" with file-sharing?
The MPAA claims that they are just looking out for the rights of film artists; that file-sharing hurts copyright holders. The truth, however, is that it isn't the artists that the MPAA is looking to protect, but rather an archaic business model. What file-sharing REALLY hinders is a studio's ability to release substandard garbage and still make money off of it. What do I mean?
Many of the hacks who make films in Hollywood may not know that the product of their "vision" is total shit, but the people who market movies do. Like a hunter tracking an animal, movie marketers look for "sign." Multiple directors hired and fired, umpteen script re-writes by umpteen screenwriters, productions that are overbudget, or have dragged on long past their schedule--marketers read these signs just like the hunter sifting through animal poop, learning everything they need to know about their subject. They know when they have a huge bomb on their hands, and there's only one way to get rid of it and still do the most damage: by surprise.
No limited early release, no pre-screening events for the press, limited or no advertising--these are all signs that a movie is crap, the studio knows it, and the marketing team is trying to salvage it. It'll end up opening the same weekend as a huge blockbuster, in the hope of gathering an audience from the overflow of a more popular movie and recouping at least some of their investment. This is the scheme that file-sharing truly threatens. People can't be tricked into paying full admission price for a piece of shit if they have already seen it.
No one is saying that the producers, studios, etc., don't have every right to make money. Quite the contrary. The only way good movies--true blockbusters--can continue to be made is if they are profitable. No one is arguing that. But a night out at the movie theater is not an inexpensive prospect anymore, and you can't blame people for wanting to spend their entertainment dollar wisely. In this way, file sharing acts like a final measure of quality control. A good movie--like "Wolverine"--it will do just fine at the box office, leak or no. In fact, these leaks may even serve the film by generating pre-release excitement. A bad movie, well, frankly, shouldn't be made in the first place. Hopefully if a bad movie doesn't make money, it won't see a sequel.
File sharing doesn't hurt the ability of artists to make a living, it hurts the ability of mediocre hacks to make a living off of their mediocrity. Steven Spielberg and Jim Cameron are in no danger of losing their livelihood. Uwe Boll, on the other hand, could be in deep shit.
THAT is the truth that the MPAA doesn't want people to know about file sharing.
*(Opening weekends: "X-Men" (2000) $54 million; "X2" (2003) $85 million; "X-Men: The Last Stand" (2006) $122 million.)