Wolverine vs. The Pirates: It was a fixed fight from the start.

Posted on 03 May 2009 by Quaid

After all the speculation–all the talk about “internet piracy” destroying the sacred institution of popcorn cinema–X-Men Origins: Wolverine cleaned up at the box-office.  How could this have possibly happened?

x_men_origins_wolverineposterIf you listened to Fox executives in the month leading up to the film’s release, there was really no way that Wolverine had ANY chance of getting its fair shake at the box-office.  After all, a near DVD quality workprint of the film leaked online a full four weeks before the film’s release.  Nowadays everyone downloads movies off the internet, and every download, we were led to believe, would amount to a whole slew of tickets that didn’t get sold.

It didn’t happen.  Like Y2K and that “Bigfoot in Georgia” fiasco before, this turned out to be somewhat of a hoax.  X-Men Origins: Wolverine took in $35 million its opening day, the 16th highest-grossing opening day ever for a film.  

You’ll still hear people saying that the opening could have been twice that without the leak of the work print.  Bollocks.  I venture to say that piracy had a negligible effect on the box-office gross of this film. 

That doesn’t mean Fox didn’t do everything they could to show their toughness on piracy–and even skew a few facts to make sure we all paid our ten bucks opening night.  They managed to get one of their editorial columnists fired for reviewing the leaked version early, and they screamed at the top of their lungs that this was NOT the finished film.  No, there would be twenty minutes omitted and an additional thirty minutes of reshoots put into the film.  The theatrical release would be radically different, they assured us, much to the relief of many X-Men fans who were concerned with the bad word-of-mouth coming from those who had seen the pirated copy.

But, of course, the theatrical version is reportedly identical to the leaked version, barring a few minor edits and finished effects.  That’s right, folks.  Fox lied to you.  A major media corporation lied to the fans.  I’m as shocked as you are.

This fact, more than anything, is what motivated me to put this all to digital paper.  I mean, for a studio to trumpet the immorality of piracy…and then to break one of “God’s sacred commandments” in an attempt to get box-office grosses up…is kind of the definition of hypocrisy.  

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Piracy is wrong.  Especially if you are downloading movies in lieu of seeing them in the theaters or buying DVDs.  At the same time, though, morality doesn’t factor in to the inner-workings of studios trying to sell tickets.  And it doesn’t really play into the actions of the audiences.  People will download movies and watch them.  It cannot be stopped.  The RIAA tried with the Napster debaucle, and failed.  Now the MPAA is going down the same road, and they, too, will fail.  


Maybe the MPAA needs to take a note from the playbook of iTunes and learn that technology is something to be embraced, fostered, and utilized intelligently.  You can’t simply attempt to control movie audiences and limit how they see films.  They will resent you for it, ignore you, and do whatever the hell they want.  Instead, you have to change your entire business model, coming up with some kind of value-added benefit to offer–like guaranteed, high-quality, fast $0.99 music downloads…or utilizing 3D technology in theaters.

My point is this: The morality of piracy, the “piracy is stealing” argument, and the discussion of whether or not we can stop it…it’s all moot.  Outdated.  Maybe five or ten years ago this would have been relevant, but there are movie pirates that have been doing this for years.  You can’t stop it, you can only try to give them a value-added service.  Or focus on marketing to others.

Because believe it or not, most of America does not pirate movies.  I won’t go so far as to say that it’s because of the strong moral fiber of the heartland.  No, it’s simply because they don’t know how.  Or don’t care to know how, or won’t put in the time it takes to learn how.  They like the theater and will gladly pay money to watch a high-quality movie worry-free.  Hell, most of the target audience for this movie probably didn’t even know a version of the movie was available online.  Movie piracy is reserved mostly for the tech savvy movie geek, and most of them are going to see any movie worth a damn in theaters.  They’ll wait to see it with an audience and a tub of popcorn, midnight on opening night.

The only time they pirate these movies is when they aren’t interested enough to go see them in the theaters in the first place.  All of those bland “take it or leave it” films…those are the stock and trade of the dreaded pirates.  So any argument that each download is a ticket lost…that’s just silly.  Most people who pirate movies are too cheap to go to the theater, or they download a movie they wouldn’t bother with if it wasn’t free.  No real money lost.  Trust me, I know a few (and I refuse to name names).

But is there something to be gained with this world of piracy?  Some “spin” that can make these movies work in the studios’ favor?  Perhaps, and Wolverine offers a clue to how this is possible.

When geeks heard “this isn’t the finished film,” they weren’t disappointed.  Instead, they started to drool.  This was a chance to see the “work in progress.”  A chance to compare notes with the finished film, which they would gladly pay to see.  A chance to have that true insider’s perspective on how the movie came together.


"My adamantium claws are no match for T1 lines!"

Is it possible that this actually drove people to the theater?  Absolutely.  And when they found out they had been lied to?  Well, there’s a reason that the movie is abysmally rated across the web.

Because it isn’t very good.  But also because it wasn’t the drastically different version that was promised.  

Beyond that, though, there is the possibility of using fully leaked movies to build buzz for a film.  If your geek fanbase is skeptical, leak out an “unfinished work print.”  Promise lots of changes, but put enough interesting elements in the film to get people excited.  Let them stew over it for a while, anticipating seeing the finished effects on the big screen.  Let them brag to their friends about how they’ve seen the movie already.  Nothing makes a movie a “must-see” for opening weekend like having friends talking about it.

Am I suggesting a conspiracy in the leak of Wolverine?  No.  But I am suggesting that this is probably going to be used, in some way in the future, as the ultimate viral marketing tool.  Leak the first two reels of your movie and let people salivate.  Scream from the top of your lungs about piracy and morality and tell people you’ll prosecute…they’ll just download faster.

Piracy is not “a growing threat” to the artistic integrity in Hollywood.  It’s been around for at least five years, and it’s here to stay.  In the end, there is really only one way to counter it: make great movies.  

No Star Trek fan is going to pirate J.J Abrams movie.  I can’t imagine watching Terminator Salvation on a 15-inch screen.  And Harry Potter fans?  They’d rather die than see the new film without a giddy audience dressed in wizard attire.

So I congratulate Wolverine, one of the most mediocre superhero movies I’ve seen, for pulling a fast one on the paying audience and cashing in big.  But if I hear one Fox executive complain about how the grosses should have been higher, though, I’ll have something to say.  

They won’t listen.  Why should they?  The movie made $35 million in its first day…what difference did my ten bucks make?

But if we all start to think like that, the pirates win.                           

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  1. Box-Office Brief: Wolverine Impales the Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. | MovieChopShop Says:

    [...] so much for the threat of piracy.  X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was leaked online over  month ago, took in a whopping $87 [...]

  2. Wolverine rakes in $160 million. Do we want a sequel? You bet your ass. | MovieChopShop Says:

    [...] I didn’t see Wolverine over the weekend, but if you want some commentary from my cohorts, you can check out Shep’s review here and Quaid’s related commentary piece here. [...]

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