Wolverine leak means corporate humiliation and potential bad buzz

As discussed yesterday, using services like BitTorrent to download movies is still a bit beyond the abilities of the average Internet surfer. For a tentpole as big as “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (or as big as the studio hopes, anyway), the people who can are a relative drop in the bucket compared to the number who will buy tickets.

Nonetheless, Fox is freaking out today over the leak of that movie onto the Net, even though it’s an early print without final music, effects, or, reportedly, footage from winter reshoots. The studio released a statement promising to punish the original source and anyone who reposts it “to the fullest extent of the law” — obviously meant primarily as a warning to anyone who’s thinking of spreading it — and the word in Hollywood is executives are genuinely upset.

Why? Well, for one thing, it’s a break down in a system that has worked pretty well the past few years. After Internet piracy became big, the studios have become much stricter about tracking prints as they make their way through workflows, particularly when they go off the lot to post production houses. It’s impossible to prevent copies from being made, but studios use digital watermarks to strike fear into the hears of employees who don’t want to end up in jail or on the hook for six figure fines.

Somehow that process broke down, whether in a test screening (as has been reported) or in post. And the print is even said to be watermark-free, meaning Fox can’t easily track down the source. That’s a major breakdown and embarassment.

But there’s more at stake than corporate humiliation. There’s a movie with a $100 million-plus budget and a marketing plan to match. And Fox is undoubtedly worried that it could all be undone by bad buzz. If the people who watch this f/x-free, pre-reshoots version of “Wolverine” don’t like it, they’re sure to start talking about it online. And then the press notices.

By the time final publicity articles start coming out in a few weeks, as well as reviews, watch to see if there are any comments like “Despite bad buzz based on a leaked version of the film…” or “Though early word on the Internet was bad after a copy was pirated…”

If it gets to that point, Fox will be battling an uphill battle with publicity, thanks to piracy. And the crackdown on post houses around Hollywood will become very intense.

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