Not too long ago, it seemed as if the new normal was simply that if one so desired to they could find pirated copies of films and TV shows with a level of effort that barely even qualifies as being described as minimal. Then the United States Department of Justice went after sites like MegaUpload and HotFile hard, and suddenly finding that copy of the latest episode of Sherlock became a bit more challenging. However, that genie is never going back into the bottle, and diligent Google searching can easily take you to lands of totally illegal free movies, TV shows, games, songs, etc.
It seems as if pop culture has conspired as of late to remind us all of that. First, there was the deeply unfortunate leak of not just 5 scripts from the new season of Doctor Who but also an unfinished, black & white copy of the season premiere (“Deep Breath”). Then, Expendables 3 leaked online in a DVD-quality copy 3 weeks before its release, and by the time it hit theaters it had been downloaded about five million times worldwide, half a million in the United States and Canada. The film then opened with just $16.2 million in North America, around 50 percent less than “The Expendables 2” in 2012. Now, Chloe Grace Moretz has revealed in an interview that she considers her time playing Hit Girl to be over because online piracy of Kick-Ass 2 killed any shot of a third installment in the franchise.
Pish-posh, though. Internet piracy is merely a somewhat costly word-of-mouth generator, allowing early access to those who were probably never going to buy a ticket anyway. It’s ultimately a meritocracy, and if your show or film brings the goods it can overcome piracy. For example, now that it’s finally aired, everyone seems really high on Doctor Who’s season premiere (“Deep Breath”), which scored the show’s best ratings in years on both BBC One and BBC America. Piracy didn’t hurt them, right? On the other hand, piracy didn’t help either Expendables 3 or Kick-Ass 2, but the main culprit is really just that both movies sucked. Come on, just look at their respective RottenTomatoes ratings: 34% and 29%. If the movies were any good they would have done far better at the box office.
Now try telling that to Chloe Grace Moretz. If the movie she made was really that bad then why did it become the most pirated film of 2013? Doesn’t that mean that there were clearly people who actually wanted to see it? Or does it simply mean that so many people heard it was bad they decided they’d rather watch it for free than pay for a ticket?
There are no solid answers to any of those questions. That actually sums up film piracy in general. The only thing you really know for sure is that it is stealing. Other than that, any statistics about the number of times something was downloaded or how much money was lost in the process are really just educated guess. For example, the New York Times recently calculated that if each of the 500,000 downloads of Expendables 3 in North America equaled a lost opening-weekend ticket purchase then the leak cost Lionsgate roughly $4 million, but you can’t really assume that all 500,000 people who pirated the film are the types who would otherwise purchase a ticket to see it in theaters. For a lot of those people, the only way they were going to see Expendables 3 was probably for free.
Still, it’s not hard to feel for Chloe Grace Moretz’ when she looks back on Kick-Ass 2:
You make these movies for the fanboys, but nowadays everyone seems to pirate them rather than watch them in the movie theater. ‘Kick-Ass 2′ was one of the number one pirated movies of the year, but that doesn’t help us because we need box office figures. We need to prove to the distributors that we can make money from a third and a fourth movie – but because it didn’t do so well, we can’t make another one. If you want more than one movie, everyone has to go and see movies at the cinema. It’s all about the numbers in the theater.
What Kick-Ass 2 did was $28m domestic/$60m worldwide against a $28m budget, probably enough to help it finally turn a profit down the road on cable rights and digital/home video sales. However, those totals are all substantially lower than the first Kick-Ass ($48m domestic/$96m worldwide against a $30m budget). Can piracy really explain how drastically the sequel dropped off from its predecessor? Not really, although the piracy didn’t help, but it’s just so much easier to simply blame piracy.
Moretz is far from the first to do so. Zombieland director Rhett Reese took his turn (claiming piracy is the reason there is no Zombieland 2) as did Ang Lee with The Hulk, 20th Century Fox with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and production company Voltage Pictures for The Hurt Locker. However, each of those cases is more complicated than “piracy did it.” Zombieland made back over four times its budget at the box office, likely well into pure profit by the time home video and merchandising sales came in. A sequel didn’t happen mostly because all of the film’s actors saw their stars (and, correspondingly, their asking price) rise shortly thereafter. The Hulk leaked in an unfinished copy well before its release, and the people who downloaded hated what they saw so much they took to the internet to tear it apart, setting it up with horrible word-of-mouth. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was such a terrible film Hugh Jackman has repeatedly apologized for it, and though Voltage Pictures is still actively suing people for downloading Hurt Locker the film actually made more than triple its $15 million budget plus an additional $30 million on home video.
The truth is that in terms of impact on box office piracy screws the “poor” more than it screws the “rich.” For example, Thomas Lennon (yes, the guy from Reno 911) made the indie comedy Hell Baby as a labor of love, a palette cleanser from his normal gigs writing Night at the Museum movies and starring in dreadful major network sitcoms. However, in a recent Nerdist Writer podcast appearance he explained how quickly he lost money on it:
“We put out Hell Baby On Demand, a movie we made that I put a lot of my life into for a long time. It was streaming legally, but also, just for fun, somebody posted it on YouTube, a perfect, High-Definition copy of it with Arabic subtitles, which you could just not pay attention to. In one day on YouTube, it got 68,000 views, which is the equivalent of a million dollars of On Demand business. So, welcome to the future, sometimes it sucks. We put that movie out On Demand, and everyone demanded the shit out of it, just on YouTube, which is a completely free arena.”
Of course, Hell Baby is also burdened with not being a particularly funny comedy (34% on RottenTomatoes), something which Lennon seems to even acknowledge during the interview (he has no idea why they have so many scenes of characters eating) while still describing it as possibly the most fun he’s ever had making a movie. Regardless, it’s the type of movie that can be absolutely destroyed by piracy; its profit margins are so thin that it can’t really weather the “free” word-of-mouth provided by piracy.
However, a recent academic study published in Social Science Research Network actually suggested that smaller films actually stand to benefit more from piracy than bigger films. The researchers analyzed weekly box office data from over 10,000 films in 50 countries, and concluded big budget blockbusters have enjoyed a minor benefit from the absence of MegaUpload while mid-range to small-budget films have seen their grosses decrease. They speculated one possible explanation might be the shut-down of MegaUpload has disrupted what had become an important generator of buzz. Yes, people were getting the stuff for free, but they were also recommending movies and shows they had consumed for free to friends who might be more inclined to pay. The logic goes that big-budget movies don’t really need this world-of-mouth boost due to their accompanying massive marketing campaigns, which is at least true of opening weekends. By that logic, something like Hell Baby being streamed 68,000 times on YouTube in 24 hours wouldn’t have been such a huge deal if the people streaming it actually liked it and went and told people to give the film a shot.
Again, try telling that to Thomas Lennon, the guy who sunk years of his life and untold amounts of his own movie into getting the movie made. If he’d made a better movie then people straight up stealing it from him wouldn’t have really mattered? It’s still stealing, isn’t it?
5 Movie Flops That Blamed Piracy | WhatCulture