The Expendables 3

Is piracy to blame for “The Expendables 3’s” puny box office debut this weekend or were viewers ready to euthanize the film’s aging action heroes?

That’s the question Hollywood’s asking after the thriller fell short of initial projections by roughly $10 million, debuting to a paltry $16.2 million.

As the dwindling numbers trickled in over the weekend, studio executives privately pointed the finger at a leaked copy of the film that hit the Internet three weeks before its debut and was seen by 2.2 million people.

“This is really a clear situation where this had an impact,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst of BoxOffice.com. “It’s hard to measure, but the ripple effect, not only of the downloads, but of the word-of-mouth that spread as a result, can be seen in the soft opening.”

The film’s initial numbers are the worst in series history. The original “Expendables” launched to $34.8 million in 2010 while the second installment debuted to $28.6 in 2012. Still, some box office observers are hesitant to ascribe blame wholly to the illegal downloads, citing franchise-fatigue after three films in relatively short order.

“It got hurt,” said on rival distribution executive. “You’d have to say there was an impact there. But as low as the numbers are, there was a whole lot more going on. There was some audience rejection. When you go to the well too many times, you’re going to run out of gas.”

It’s also not clear that the majority of people who downloaded the movie illegally would have paid to see it in theaters even if it wasn’t available online, argues Rentrak media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. Then there’s the continued strength of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” which still managed to do more than $20 million of business in their third and second weeks in theaters.

“It’s such a crowded marketplace,” said Dergarabedian. “Even taking piracy out of the equation, it’s so much competitive than we thought it would be.”

“The Expendables 3″ was widely seen as a litmus test for the impact that piracy can have on a film’s prospects. Hollywood has tried to hit back against illegal downloading in the past, backing controversial legislation such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). When those bills collapsed in 2012, undone by a grassroots backlash and concerns about their impact on First Amendment rights, studios chose to speak more softly. For the most part, their efforts have been limited to outreach to Silicon Valley companies. Given “The Expendables 3’s” poor results, those overtures may grow more intense.

Measuring the impact of piracy on box office is difficult and the data can be contradictory. For instance, an unfinished copy of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” was widely distributed online a month before the film opened in 2009, but the picture still managed to rack up $373 million globally. That’s a big number and one that suggests a lot of people were still willing to shell out for the finished product.

However, some research suggests that piracy can take a big chunk out of ticket sales. A 2011 study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers found that when a film is pirated prior to release, it loses nearly 20% of its potential revenue.

Lionsgate, which distributed “The Expendables 3,” and producer Avi Lerner declined to comment, citing an ongoing lawsuit against 10 anonymous individuals alleged to have shared a digital copy of the sequel with piracy sites.

They may be quiet now, but don’t expect the studios to remain mum for long. Fresh shots were just fired in the piracy war.

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