Editorial: The Expendables 3 Leak and Why We Should Be Paying Attention

Our new writer, Patrick, is here to comment on the Expendables 3 pirated copy situation.

"I am SO disappointed with
your hair."
So The Expendables 3 leaks three weeks early and is downloaded a few million times.  Lionsgate gets a temporary restraining order issued to try and stop the hemorrhaging.  The cat, of course, is already out of the proverbial bag, and no amount of court-mandated injunctive relief is going to change that.  Bad news for Lionsgate, but for those of us that take an interest in these sorts of things, this situation presents a unique opportunity to study the effects of widespread online film piracy on ticket sales and the overall cinematic reception of a potential summer blockbuster.

Ask any film industry attorney about the effects of online piracy and you are nearly certain to receive at least one consistent answer – online piracy negatively impacts the sales of movies at every level – theater tickets, DVDs and other physical media, and even legitimate online sources, like Netflix.  You’d probably discover similar sentiments from more “neutral” parties, such as judges – the existence of damages in a copyright infringement lawsuit are usually a bygone conclusion, and with good reason too, applying good old-fashioned logic would tend to agree.   If these “pirates” are downloading the movie, they obviously aren’t buying it like the rest of us law-abiding folks.  There is certainly an argument to be made, though, that this conclusion is far from bygone, and that online piracy isn’t nearly the harbinger of Hollywood doom that it’s made out to be.

The film industry’s argument goes something like this – “A would-be consumer downloads our movie, watches it in their home and therefore will not purchase a movie ticket, or DVD, or legitimate digital copy of our movie, and we lose sales, causing us irreparable harm!”  We can all admit that this presents a likely scenario, but is it the only scenario?  Obviously not – this situation assumes that this would-be consumer would otherwise have purchased the film (in some medium or another) had he not already viewed the pirated copy.  Here we have several more likely scenarios – first, the consumer may have never even considered purchasing the movie unless the price of the movie was, well, free.  That’s Economics 101, folks, there are some people who will not purchase a product no matter how low the price, unless it’s free.  Second, viewing the film from an infringing digital copy does not preclude that viewer from paying to see the damn movie anyways!  If viewing a crappy, digital copy of a movie on my 21” computer monitor is equivalent to viewing it in the theater, why the heck are we spending $15 a ticket to see a movie on the big screen?!

"Well, I figured it couldn't get much
worse than the Crystal Skull."
Further differentiating the “pirated” experience from a theatrical (or even DVD or digital) one, is that most pirated films, at least those still in theater, suffer from exceedingly low quality.  Most are listed as “CAM,” which is exactly as it sounds – the almost humorously cliché pirated movie – the one recorded by some guy with a camcorder under his trench coat.  Perhaps that has something to do with why Guardians of the Galaxy is smashing August box office records despite the fact that there are over a dozen pirated versions of the film circulating on the internet.

And that’s the reason the leak of The Expendables 3 has created a great learning experience – the pre-theatrical release version of the film is actually of fairly high quality, supposedly ripped from a DVD “screener” copy provided to the news media.  Let’s keep an eye on those Expendables ticket sales – it will be at best illuminating, and at worst, interesting to see whether this violation of “the right of first publication” has any noticeable effect.  If it bombs, however, it’ll certainly be due to the high quality pre-release leak – not due to the quality of the movie!

-Patrick McDonald