Feds may peg bootleggers for lagging B.O.

MGM’s “Soul Plane” may have crashed with critics, but the hip hop airline laffer was a huge hit with bootleggers.

As early as April, illegal and very high-quality DVD and VHS copies were so widely available among street vendors that some involved with the film blame its poor box office performance on bootleggers.

The FBI is said to be investigating how “Soul Plane” was hijacked, though the agency, citing normal policy, would not confirm or deny a probe.

When it opened Memorial Day weekend “Soul Plane” grossed a disappointing $7 million. Since then, it has a cume of $11.3 million.By the time “Soul Plane” opened on May 28, bootleggers had been hawking copies for so long that it had become a running joke.

When D.L. Hughley showed up on opening night to plug the pic on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Kimmel ribbed him, “It looks like it’s a funny movie. In fact, I should have seen it already because we’ve had this bootleg of ‘Soul Plane’ here for three weeks.”

Hughley gamely replied, “I had it while we were shooting the movie.”

For years in overseas markets, Hollywood has had to contend with bootleg copies of their films being sold on the street well before their theatrical release. More and more, studios have adopted day-and-date release patterns for the biggest pics in part to beat the pirates.

But this incident marks the earliest pirates have gotten hold of a major movie ahead of its U.S. release.

“It killed us,” said the pic’s helmer Jessy Terrero. “I’ve been telling the studio for more than two months.”

“We’re the first movie that can demonstrate a direct relationship between digital piracy and box office sales,” producer David Scott Rubin said. “Even if the movie isn’t any good, if a movie is out on the streets for two months with your core audience, the word of mouth works against you.”

Terrero said the high-quality version of the pic being sold is an early cut he finished in November. “It came straight off a digital master,” he said.

Despite heightened awareness among studios about the threats of piracy, it is commonplace for titles to reach street vendors in places like L.A.’s Santee Alley and Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall a couple days after studios begin screening their pics.

But “Soul Plane” hit the streets much earlier. For instance, on April 22 Philadelphia police busted what the Motion Picture Assn. of America called a “sizeable illegal optical disc piracy ring,” confiscating 15,000 DVD-Rs. The only title found that had not yet played in theaters was “Soul Plane.” A month later, on May 20, in another piracy raid this time in L.A., again the only title confiscated that wasn’t yet in theaters was “Soul Plane.”

For its part, MGM declined to discuss whether piracy had brought down the pic. “We had a low-budget movie that underperformed,” said studio spokesman David Bloom, blaming “a confluence of factors.”

The hijacking of “Soul Plane” comes at a sensitive time for MGM, when several potential bidders, including Sony, are weighing acquiring the studio in a multi-billion dollar transaction.

As with all piracy, it’s impossible to quantify the financial impact on “Soul Plane’s” box office. A modestly budgeted movie — MGM said it spent $16 million on the production — the pic was never meant to be a huge blockbuster.

But in the run-up to release, MGM appeared to be concerned that by the time “Soul Plane” was released, it would already be old news with the audience it was meant for, young people in urban markets. So, MGM took the unusual step of adding the question “Have you already seen this film?” to the tracking polls it commissioned.

The results were startling for a pic that technically hadn’t played commercially anywhere, people who saw the results said. Immediately before the theatrical bow on May 28, the polls were finding that more than a quarter of the core audience had already seen “Soul Plane.”

Terrero said he first learned in April a bootleg of “Soul Plane” was floating around. “A friend of mine called me up to tell me a girl was watching it in his living room,” he said. He later heard from more people who had seen it, including some who claimed to have had bootlegs for months.

Well before release, the director attended a test screening in Chicago “More than half the people said they had seen it or they knew about the movie because someone they knew had a copy of it,” he said.

“When 50 Cent called me to tell me he was watching my movie, I knew it was a big problem.”

He had taken the bootleg DVD to MGM execs and urged them to move up the release date. They stuck with the original date, but began to monitor just how widely the bootleg was being seen.

So, combating the bootleggers became a central focus of the publicity campaign targeted at urban markets. Snoop Dogg and Mo’Nique, who both appear in the film, emphasized in radio interviews that the movie in theaters was different from the bootlegged copy.

Among the many promotional interviews she did, Mo’Nique told freelancer Larry Carroll, “I know it’s out there. I was at the Kentucky Derby, and this guy came up to me and said, ‘Mo’Nique, your movie was so funny.’ I thought maybe he was talking about ”Two Can Play That Game.’ Then he told me it was ‘Soul Plane,’ and I hadn’t even seen it yet.”

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