Oscar nominees typically enjoy a box office bounce. But Hollywood increasingly has to reckon with another award-season ritual, one that could best be described as the piracy plunder.
The attention that an Oscar nomination for best picture bestows on a title also triggers a spike in illegal downloading.
In the week after noms were announced on Jan. 25, illegal daily downloads of “True Grit” increased worldwide by 34%, “The Fighter” by 23% and “Black Swan” by 6%, according to Peer Media Technologies, an anti-piracy firm that contracts with studios and monitors peer-to-peer network traffic.
Of course, none of these movies have hit homevideo legally yet, so the leaks come from camcorders in the theaters, from somewhere in the production process or even from award-season screeners.
Peer Media, with whom Variety has partnered to produce a weekly chart tracking illegal download data, reports that of all the best picture nominees, “Inception” has suffered the most illegal downloads, about 17 million worldwide since the week of July 16, when the film was released theatrically in the U.S. and many other territories. Italy was the top country for illegal downloads of the pic, with almost 2.5 million.
“The Social Network” followed with 5.6 million downloads since its release on Oct. 1, with Italy again the top ranking country, at 686,851 downloads to date.
“Inception” and “The Social Network” already were released on homevideo by the time the Oscar nominations were announced, and while their prevalence on peer-to-peer networks is certainly a frustration for distributors, it pales in comparison to the leak of a movie well before a DVD release or, in some cases, before even a theatrical release. “The King’s Speech,” for instance, has been downloaded 1.2 million times, with the United Kingdom leading the list.
“Piracy is very simple: When there is a demand, piracy will go up,” said Hemanshu Nigam, founder of SSP Blue, an advisory firm on online safety and security who formerly help top-level security posts at News Corp. and the MPAA. “Demand goes up not only in legitimate circles but illegitimate circles.”
“We often see spikes in demand on two fronts, via legal channels and illegal channels, with increases in marketing activity,” said Darcy Antonellis, president of tech operations at Warner Bros. “Coincident with Oscar announcements and nominations, we typically see the same types of spikes.”
Studios in 2003 sought to ban screeners, only to face an outcry from filmmakers and indies that eventually led to a new plan in which films were sent to Academy and guild members with a greater level of protection, such as watermarks.
But a Google search for, say, “Black Swan” or “True Grit” and “torrent” easily leads to a list of sites offering what purport to be Academy screeners.
Tech entrepreneur Andy Baio, author of the blog Waxy.org, has collected stats regarding the piracy of Oscar contenders going back to 2003, and noted that screeners of “127 Hours,” “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “King’s Speech,” “Social Network” and “True Grit” have leaked this award season. He wrote on his site that 11 screeners have leaked to the Internet so far this year, including seven that are “probable” Academy screeners.
But that’s less than in years past, he noted, writing that “it’s safe to say that industry efforts to watermark screeners and prosecute leaks by members have almost certainly contributed to the decline.”
According to Peer Media, after one screener leaked to peer-to-peer networks this award season, it was downloaded tens of thousands of times within just a day. The company could not disclose the title.
Mike Robinson, exec VP of content protection and chief of operations for the MPAA, said that while it is “unfortunate that screeners do leak, you do have to put it into context.”
“With all the thousands and thousands of screeners that are put through the mail and delivery system, it pales compared to the amount of piracy that is being done through camcording,” he said.
The MPAA has in the past pursued charges against those who leaked screeners to the Internet, and Robinson said the org is in the process of investigating some cases this year, but he said he could not yet discuss details or which titles are involved. So far no one has been charged, he said. While Academy and guild members are warned of distributing the screeners, there have been cases where screeners have been delivered to old addresses, or swiped from apartment mail slots, he noted.
The major studios have concentrated their anti-piracy efforts at the source, but Voltage Pictures, the producers of last year’s best picture winner, “Hurt Locker,” took a more drastic approach. They tapped the Virginia firm of Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver to pursue suits against thousands of those who obtained copies of the film via file-sharing networks. The movie collected just $17 million at the domestic box office, and $49 million worldwide, and was available on homevideo by the time that Oscar nominations were announced. Nicolas Chartier, the president of Voltage, said of the decision to sue: “7 million illegal downloads, and the movie cost $12 million to make….If you don’t stop it, it’s just going to get worse.”
Their action is complex. It has required issuing subpeonas to Internet providers to obtain the identities of the users, then the filing of individual copyright infringement suits in jurisdictions across the country, in some cases seeking damages of $30,000 to $150,000 per infringement. While individuals are offered the chance to settle — for penalities in the range of $2,900 — the figures go up as the litigation drags on.
Attorney Thomas Dunlap said that the publicity over Voltage’s actions has had a “huge deterrent effect”: Illegal file sharing of the movie fell by 80% after the suits were filed in May. He said he plans to soon pursue litigation against downloaders of another title, “The Mechanic,” on behalf of Nu Image.
The drawback in such a strategy is not just the legal tangle but the publicity, as it puts studios in the awkward position of suing consumers who want to see their product, albeit ones who are not paying up. Chartier says he’s in a different situation as a producer. “I don’t think anyone is waking up saying, ‘Let’s boycott movies made by Voltage.'”
The fact that studios are not pursuing a similar strategy, Nigam said, “doesn’t negate the problem that it is unlawful, but it does raise significant awareness that we need to educate our citizens in a digital society that piracy laws apply online as well.”