Back in early 2009, superhero fans were eagerly anticipating the upcoming release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first spin-off in the massively popular X-Men series.
With South African director Gavin Hood at the helm, X-Men Origins was set to reveal the tantalising backstory of one of the series’ favourite characters, the iron-clawed Logan (Hugh Jackman). But widely publicised script problems and studio interference plagued the production from the start. As the dust started to settle, the unthinkable happened. More than a month before the stars dotted the red carpet at the official premiere, a DVD-quality workprint leaked online, spreading like wildfire.
Fox, the studio behind the X-Men series, scrambled to contain the leak. Soon the FBI and MPAA got involved. But the leak proved to be unstoppable. By the time the film was officially released, Fox estimated it was downloaded more than 4.5 million times. First, a special effects house in Australia that worked on several scenes got blamed, but they denied any wrongdoing. Eventually, forensic evidence led the police to the house of Gilberto Sances, a New Yorker who was the first person to upload the stolen workprint on file sharing sites under the pseudonym “Skilly Gilly”. He told authorities he bought an unlicensed copy from a Korean man earlier. Who that man was or where he got his hands on the workprint, no one knows. Luckily, Fox came out of the ordeal relatively unscathed. Despite bad reviews, the movie still grossed more than $150 million on its opening day.
While some reports suggest a pre-release leak can result in an average 19% decrease in revenue, Fox was lucky not to have a box office bomb on their hands. However, other movies that suffered a similar fate definitely felt it cut into their profit margins.
Here’s a quick look at some of the other biggest pre-release movie leaks ever.
The repercussions of ‘shooting’ Kim Jong-un
Late in November 2014, a group called Guardians of Peace hacked into the servers of Sony Pictures, releasing an amplitude of confidential information such as employee emails, executive salaries, unproduced screenplays, and copies of several unreleased Sony films.
Brad Pitt’s war epic Fury, the musical remake Annie, the biographical Mr Turner, the Oscar-winning Alice and the drama To Write Love on Her Arms were all uploaded to file sharing sites weeks before their official American release date. Within days the movies were downloaded more than a million times worldwide.
Hot on their trail, the FBI believed the Guardians of Peace was from North Korea and carried out the hack in revenge after Sony produced The Interview, a Seth Rogan comedy about an attempted assassination of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.
Despite the leak both Fury and Annie made a decent amount of money at the box office. But the studio still felt Fury showed a “lacklustre performance” after it grossed only $211 million. They felt the gritty war drama would’ve performed much better had it not been for the leak.
Suing ‘potentially tens of thousands’
Arguably 2009 was a terrible year for Hollywood security. After premiering at the Venice Film Festival in September 2008, Kathryn Bigelow’s gritty war film The Hurt Locker only went into wide release almost a year later. In a devastating blow, and likely due to its initial release overseas, the film leaked onto file sharing sites five months prior. The producers frantically tried to stop the illegal copies from spreading, even going so far as suing each and every one of the “potentially tens of thousands” of people who illegally downloaded it.
But it was too late. The leak severely affected The Hurt Locker’s box office performance. It ended up making only $49 million worldwide, despite widespread critical acclaim and winning several Oscars, including the first win for a female director.
Producing partner Voltage Pictures eventually dropped their lawsuit after several infringers blatantly refused to cooperate and pay the $1500 fee demanded of them.
Blame it on the piracy
Even with the likes of Harrison Ford and Wesley Snipes joining the team returning for the third instalment in the popular Expendables series, the film suffered a “dismal” opening of just $15 million. Lionsgate had high hopes for their adrenaline fueled tent-pole after the second instalment rushed to pass the $300 million mark in worldwide grosses.
Though industry insiders blame the poor opening weekend on the simultaneous release of two other male-driven action films, Guardians of the Galaxy and the rebooted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the studio insisted piracy was to blame. More than a month before its official release in August 2014, a high-quality version of the movie was illegally uploaded to file-sharing sites. The floodgates opened and within 24 hours the film was downloaded more than 190,000 times. A week later Lionsgate estimated downloads exceeding 2 million and counting.
Though the movie, co-written by series creator Sylvester Stallone, eventually made more than $214 million at the global box office, Lionsgate hoped for much more. One possible reason for the loss in ticket sales is piracy, yes, but in an article, The New York Times explains that even if everyone that downloaded the movie did watch it in the cinema, the studio would still have made only “about $4 million more”.
“In other words, the poor performance of The Expendables 3 cannot be explained by piracy alone,” the newspaper insisted. Instead, they pointed the finger at audience boredom and the studio’s choice to downgrade the violence for a more family friendly movie.
While $4 million might not have made such a big difference on a big-budgeted film like Expendables 3, a loss like that would be devastating for an independent filmmaker. That’s why it’s very important for indies to safeguard their content if they have to send it to possible investors or distributors before being released.
The more people with access, the greater the odds of the film leaking. By uploading your movie to a secure digital distribution platform like Screener Copy you send a unique, watermarked copy to a list of recipients. A hidden bounty is added to each file and if found, the owner gets informed and can take immediate action.
Keep your content safe. There’s always people out there trying to steal it.