Did File-Sharing Make Wolverine a Hit?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Accept No Substitutes: The Pirated Version of "Woverine" is Not Nearly as Good There is a mind-blowing cover story by Jonah Lehrer in the January 2010 issue  of Wired that suggests that scientists, instead of being neutral observers searching for objective “truth,” actually conduct experiments to prove that their preconceptions are right.  When they find contrary evidence, they either ignore it, or figure their equipment or methodology is faulty.  To paraphrase Paul Simon in “The Boxer,” they see what they want to see and disregard the rest. 

The article made me think:  is this the way so many of us in the industry think about file-sharing?  Are so many unable to see what is really going on because we don’t want to?

So I thought, “How can I be scientific about this?”  After all, there is no way to prove the impact of file-sharing on the business. It happens, and it’s common sense that it’s bad for people to get stuff and not pay for it.

And then I thought about “Wolverine.”  To my knowledge, “Wolverine” is the ONLY big-budget epic film that has been available on the internet weeks in advance of its opening.   Its singularity makes it a particularly intriguing subject for study and debate.

So what happened?  Despite the file-sharing and poor reviews, the film opened  to an $85 million first weekend gross.  Not too shabby.  As file-sharing is known to be detrimental, there was much chatter about how much more the film would have made if over an estimated million people hadn’t seen it on their computers in advance.

Matthew Belloni hypothesized the possibilities in an article in the Hollywood Reporter:

Losses (millions)  
-$7.18 one million viewers times the average American ticket price of  $7.18
-$15.75 The difference between the opening weekend of “Wolverine” and “X-Men: The Last Stand”
-$14.1 “Iron Man” made $102 million over the same weekend in 2008.  “Iron Man” had stellar reviews,  but this sort of movie is “critic-proof,” right?
$00 What if it has no impact?  Maybe it is good marketing?   We doubt it, but expect the pirates to crow about it

$00  you can mention and  reject.  But only if it’s right on the nose--$00 and not a penny more. 

Now that 2009 is over, let’s see how that opening weekend of “Wolverine” stacked up against other films that were very highly promoted in advance:

Film Opening (millions) Theatres
The Twilight Saga: New Moon $142.8 4124
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen $108.9 4293
Wolverine $85 4099
Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince $77.8 4325
Avatar $77 3456
Star Trek $75.2 3849
Fast and Furious $70.9 3461
Up $68.1 3766
Monsters Vs. Aliens $59.3 4104
Watchmen $55.2 3611
GI Joe $54.7 4007
Night at the Museum 2 $54.2 4096

As Mr. Meloni pointed out, “Wolverine” might have made $15.75 million more because it was the latest installment of a very lucrative franchise. Let’s look at the other prominent sequels of 2009, in addition to the ones listed above.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeaquel 50.2 3700
Angels & Demons 46 3527
Terminator Salvation 42.5 3530
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs 41.7 4099
Friday the 13th 40.5 3105
The Final Destination 27.4 3121

As I said, not one of the films listed above were shown online before their release.  Of course the first weekend’s gross isn’t about the ultimate popularity of a film, it’s just a rough measurement of advance excitement.  A lot of people just couldn’t wait to see them.

Afterwards was a different story for “Wolverine online.  Then “Wolverine” was only the ninth most downloaded after five of the other box-office triumphs of the year, as per Torrentfreak: “Tranformers” (#1 on the Torrenfreak list) “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (#2), “Twilight” (#4), “The Hangover” (#5), and “Star Trek” (#6).

Of course you can say, this is just another huge opening weekend in a record-breaking year that was full of them--the real issue is DVD sales, which are dropping precipitously.  But less publicized is that, per the Hollywood Reporter,  DVD rentals were actually up by 8.2% in 2009.  People may be getting their movies through Netflix and Redbox, but those are totally legit ways to pay for movies.  So people’s desire to pay for movies in theatres and on home video is on the upswing.   Purchasing DVDs may be down, but the fact is that with every new home video medium, people go on a buying binge to get all their favorite films at the start.   Eventually they own the movies they want and the pace slows.  This is natural.  Blu-ray sales (up over 83% in the first nine months as per the article linked above from the Reporter) will increase for years.  But someday people will have the core Blu-ray library they want and their purchases will slow. Or they will be affected by the guaranteed arrival of The Next Big Thing.  By the way, what is the reason for an avid  DVD collector to buy in bulk now that Blu-ray is here? 

What do you think about all this? 

Please leave your comments.