‘Expendables 3’ Flop Shows Danger of Pre-Release Piracy, Expert Says

The Expendables 3

“The Expendables 3” flopped at the box office last weekend, the victim of scathing reviews and a concept that was looking bruised and battered by round three.

It was also hindered by widespread piracy, as a high-quality copy of the film that leaked online three weeks before it premiered was downloaded by an estimated 2.2 million people.  “The Expendables 3” pulled in a meager $16.2 million for its premiere, a franchise low-point and roughly $10 million less than some analysts expected it to make.

It’s not clear how much the illegal downloads are to blame for “The Expendables 3’s” failure, particularly given that other films were more widely pirated last week. However, a 2011 report by Carnegie Mellon researchers found that when a film leaks before its debut, box office revenues can drop by 19.2 percent.

To get a handle on piracy’s repercussions for “The Expendables 3” and for the film industry as a whole, Variety spoke to Michael D. Smith, a professor of information technology and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College school of public policy, and one of that report’s authors.

Do you think that piracy hurt “The Expendables 3”?

We don’t know what it would have done were it not pirated, but this looks exactly like what we were talking about in the paper — it was a high quality leak, before a movie opened, that attracted fans who would have paid to see and now don’t have to.

Most major blockbusters are pirated as soon as they hit theaters, but your study is focused on pre-release piracy. What makes that so problematic?

There certainly are people who watched the pirated copies who weren’t going to see it any way. But the real fans are the ones who rush out on opening weekend, and what’s harmful is when it’s available on pirate sites before there is a legal channel to see it. You’re asking people to not only not see a pirated copy, but to wait a few weeks. Those are your most valuable customers and they’re the ones you need to consume the content legally.

Is there any publicity advantage to having a film leak? Couldn’t it help build buzz, particularly if the film is good?

Studios are not idiots. They want to make money. If pre-release piracy helped with that, they would cheerfully leak their films. But they know it hurts box office. It strikes me as unusual when pirate sites say piracy helps a film’s sales. Alright, but they don’t have the right to take it upon themselves to leak and consume pirated material.

Some people recognize that piracy is wrong, but there are some circles where piracy is an acceptable practice. From a studio’s perspective, if and when piracy becomes accepted and people stop having a moral problem with it, they’ve got a real problem on their hands.

An unfinished copy of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” leaked online a month before it hit theaters, but the film was a box office success. How could piracy hurt “The Expendables” but leave that film unscathed?

Let’s assume it didn’t have that big an impact, it could be related to the quality. “Expendables 3” was a DVD quality leak. “Wolverine” was unfinished. That could be the difference.

Has piracy become more widespread since the ‘Wolverine” situation?

In some ways, the fact that we haven’t seen a leak like this since “Wolverine” suggests that studios are better at shutting it down. The issue for them is that now that movie production is digital, anybody with a flash drive and a little bit of access can steal it.

What do you think gets ignored in the piracy debate?

If piracy becomes more and more popular, studios are going to stop making some types of films, and that’s bad for all of us. It’s not only the fat cat studio chiefs you’re hurting. It’s you the consumer.

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  1. The piracy leak did not have that big of an effect, the people downloading it were more than likely not going to watch the movie anyway. This movie failed for a couple of reasons, one was it was just bad. 2 was Sly sold out his core fans so that he could be greedy and try to also get to the younger crowd with the PG13 rating and having a younger expendables team. Well Sly, you said you owe it to the younger generation but they don’t give a flip about you or any other old foggy in this movie, you turned your back on the core fans like me who grew up watching you. Next time, stick to what works and stop being so dang greedy! Now you terminated this franchise, which I was just starting to like with all my favorite action heroes.

  2. james says:

    the piracy effected the film due to the month early release but only in a small way.

    over all the film had no soul. folks were expecting violence 80’s style with a solid rated R with some the major names of that era. what we got was 2 hrs of what the hell am i watching and whay does this feel as if the studio forced a Pg-13 to get kids in the seats. listen action movies are suppoed to be for adultts its all about the gun vioence and blood and death thats why they are action movie not barney saves tokyo! and no these guys would never do that they’d beat each other’s asses for pulling that kinda crap. dumping a team for a new one. in the end it boils down to if the film was amazing pirated or not fans would have turned out in droves to see it. unfortunatly that was not the case here. fans had friends go see the film and give reports if the film was good the answer came back no. was there any diffrence maybie it was an early cut. nope final cut 1:1 so what we saw in pirated was the same as the film in the theaters… yup.. okay ya no thanks!

  3. DSykes says:

    Piracy did have an impact…all be it, a minor one. Even if you take into account Carnegie Melon’s estimate that piracy can have an impact of UP TO 19.2%, that still means that at BEST it’d have only brought in $19.3M and still would have been considered flop, and still would have finished behind the two previous top movies.

    Truth is that between people being turned off by the movie being rated PG-13 to supposedly draw in a ‘younger crowd’ and the lack luster advertising campaign that did nothing to tell people WHAT the movie was about, but only WHO was in the movie. The Audience really didn’t have any reason to see the movie, throw in the terrible reviews, including the 35% score on RT and you can easily see that Piracy really had very little to do with this outcome.

  4. martina says:

    It flopped because it’s a stupid ,rubbish, violent film with old rehashed actors. Nothing to do with piracy.
    Psalm 11:5

  5. It’s a shame that the cost of movie making has gotten so out of hand that $16M is considered a flop – for one weekend

  6. The Kingslayer says:

    Piracy was the least of The Expendables problems. It was all because Sly watered it down to a PG-13 and filled the cast with a bunch of young nobodies.

  7. michael bergeron says:

    Taken had been in release around the world for a year (and was presumably available on disc outside the us) before it’s USA release and still grossed $144-mill

  8. harry georgatos says:

    Piracy didn’t help but at the end of the day bad word of mouth spread quickly in multiple waves for making a third lousy product in a lousy franchise!!

  9. nerdrage says:

    Piracy hurts movies like this one – too crappy to really justify paying a ticket for if you don’t have to – but Hollywood is not magically going to start making only Guardians of the Galaxy type movies. So they need to make money off the bad movies, too. And that’s where piracy hurts them.

  10. Mark says:

    Piracy doesn’t hurt movie sales. Charging $15 tickets, $10 popcorn and $7 soda does.

  11. Farrell says:

    Sorry, but piracy does not hurt box office. The movie Taken was pirated before release and had a great opening weekend and finished with a fantastic run. What the studios don’t want to admit is piracy hurts BAD MOVIES…because everyone gets to see how much of a piece of crap the movie is and tell all their friends to avoid it. If the movie is good, piracy probably even helps the box office, because word of mouth pre-release will be good, and people would prefer to see a movie on a large screen with crystal clarity than a crappy looking pirated copy.

    • jhs39 says:

      Your point is dumb–most movies are simply not worth seeing more than once–including movies that are a lot better than Expendables 3. A movie will never benefit from a high quality bootleg leaked before theatrical release because, all things being equal, most people would prefer to watch a movie at home than see it in a theater. The best that can be hoped for is that the bootleg won’t hurt box office too much.

      • nerdrage says:

        I agree, piracy hurts bad movies more than good ones. But so what? Is Hollywood magically going to start making only good movies? I’m sure they would if they could, but it’s never going to happen. Bad movies or good, they still need to make $$$ off all of it.

  12. James Breen says:

    Yeah, I’m the sure that studios will be “hurt” enough by piracy that they stop making superhero and action movies.

    • nerdrage says:

      They make those movies because they are the most piracy-proof. The more eye candy and crazy action you throw on the screen, the bigger the difference between the theatrical and home experience. Hollywood’s holy grail is movies like Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy, where it would be a tragic waste not to see them in the theater, in 3D, for the full experience. Can you imagine seeing Gravity on your TV set? Might as well not even bother.

      • Duder NME says:

        I’ve initially seen four of my five all-time favorite films on 4:3 pan-scan mono TV. Today’s multiplexes aren’t Mann’s Chinese Theater, and IMAX is still an experience one must travel to see, and pray to get the best out of the state-wide lot (some IMAX theaters are smaller than others, what a jip!). I also plan to see Guardians in 2D because I don’t feel like spending that much for it in 3D. So I will bother but not much, dannke.

      • Some guy says:

        A few of the theatres that are near where I live offer a pretty poor experience though. They have crappy projectors where the contrast is too high, so dark colors are way to dark and bright colors end up being blinding as well as the overall picture just appearing kind of blurry. Also, they turn the sound up way to high and it’s ends up actually hurting your ears. Going to any old theatre isn’t necessarily the superior option.

      • James Breen says:

        Actually, I watch Gravity on my 15 inch laptop and loved every minute of it. So did my wife. Yes, the theatrical adds to the experience. But, I could just as easily turn off all the lights, put on my headphones and enjoy the intimacy of one to one movie experience. And, I’m sure that I’m not alone in thinking that way.

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