How much did piracy hurt 'Wolverine' boxoffice?

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How much did piracy hurt 'Wolverine' boxoffice?

Sun May 03, 2009 @ 10:34AM PST

By Matthew Belloni

Wolverine6 The opening weekend numbers are in, and the hottest question in the anti-piracy community has been answered...sort of..OK, not really.

As THR's Carl DiOrio reports, Fox's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" pulled in an estimated $87 million domestically this weekend, making it a solid hit. Now the query that was first raised when the unfinished workprint of the film leaked on March 30th is center stage: what could have been?

The answer is unknowable, of course, and the file-sharing community will no doubt point to the big total as proof that piracy doesn't really hurt the studios, at least not when it comes to theatrical boxoffice. But a close look at the numbers suggest the leak indeed might have cost Fox. How much? Tons of variables are at work here; everything from mixed reviews to swine flu. But here are a couple purely speculative piracy loss scenarios: 

$7.18 milllion -- Reports following the leak suggested that about 1 million people viewed at least part of the workprint. That number seemed low to us, given the publicity, the Web savvy of the film's core audience and how easy it is now to access torrent sites via Google. But accepting that number and multiplying it by $7.18, which is the average North American movie ticket price, the early availability might have shaved about $7.18 million off the opening weekend numbers. Caveats: Sure, many of those who cared enough to look at the leaked version no doubt donned their muttonchops and plastic claws to see the finished film on opening night. And plenty of lookie-loos never would have seen the film anyways. (Plus, the 1 million presumably refers to views worldwide, not just North America.) But the leak also contributed to some negative buzz about the film, which--like with Universal's leaked "Hulk" in 2003--reverberated beyond the pirate community ("Wolverine's" RottenTomato rating ended up at a splattering 38%).       

$15.75 million -- That's the difference between the opening weekend domestic gross of "Wolverine" and "X-Men: The Last Stand." Brett Ratner's 2006 contribution to the series opened to a more impressive $102.75. Granted, that benchmark seems unfair because "X-3" opened over the Memorial Day weekend (its 4-day total was $122.9 million) and was riding high on fan support of Bryan Singer's well-received "X-2: X-Men United." But an argument could be made that a prequel about the series' most popular character, released as the summer kickoff in a year of recession-supercharged boxoffice, would have reached $100 million without piracy.

$14.1 million -- A better comparison for "Wolverine" might be the $102.1 that "Iron Man" pulled in over the same weekend last year. That comic book adaptation launched without the built-in franchise power that "Wolverine" has and without the recession boost but still managed to outgross it by an estimated 14.1 million. (Good reviews helped the Jon Favreau pic, but these movies are review-proof, aren't they?)

$00 -- What if the copyleft is right and piracy doesn't really impact opening weekends at all? Maybe the unfinished print acted as a massive tease for the final cut, something that primed the core audience and served as free publicity for everyone else. Or maybe audiences separate the experience of watching pirated movies online from the fun of seeing a big summer movie in the theater. We doubt it (and we never believed those rumors that Fox actually leaked the film itself to stoke buzz or create an excuse if the film fizzled). But look for the pirates to point to "Wolverine" and say the studios are crying, um, wolf, when they beat their drums about leaks hurting the bottom line. 

As we said, this is all just speculation. That's the frustrating part about rampant piracy: there's no way to know how sharp "Wolverine's" boxoffice claws might have been.    

RELATED: THR's Steven Zeitchik looks at the "mutating force" of piracy over at the Risky Business blog.

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The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to [email protected]


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