A workprint of 20th Century Fox's Wolverine spin-off was leaked onto file sharing networks at the tail end of last week, which in and of itself is not big news, that kind of thing happens now and again. Fox overreacted by calling in the FBI and subsequently firing its long-time movie reviewer, Roger Friedman, for doing his job.
The problems with what's going on here are numerous, so here are some questions that entertainment jouranlists ought to be asking, but aren't. Why is the government investigating a civil offense that it can't prosecute? Simple copyright infringement is a civil offense, not a crime, so the FBI really doesn't have the jurisdiction or authority to investigate this leak. Nor is it prepared to become Intellectual Property police during a time when significant resources have already been diverted from domestic fraud and organized crime investigations to make up for the United States not having an agency dedicated to counter terrorism.
Industry lobbyists have been pushing Congress to enact legislation that would give the Department of Justice the authority to prosecute civil copyright cases -- using tax payer money -- so that extremely rich and powerful conglomerates like Disney don't have to do it themselves. Not because they can't afford it, and not because they can't win these cases extremely easy. They just don't want to have to bother with it when they can make the government do it for them, and they'd probably be just as happy if copyright infringement became a criminal offense rather than civil.
Fox is within its rights to ask for help, but it seems inappropriate for a federal agency to dedicate scare resources and spend the people's money to help giant corporation investigate a very minor incident that isn't even a crime.
Why are bloggers and journalists feigning outrage and surprise? Professional reviewers pirating movies and TV shows is not a new phenomena. I wrote a story about TV Week's James Hibberd some time ago, when he was pirating fall television pilots and reviewing them in an official capacity for his employer:
TelevisionWeek downloaded and confirmed the content of several pilot files. The videos were high quality, akin to the streaming programs on broadcast network Web sites.
Since the only place you can get these things with any amount of reliability is Bittorrent, it is very likely that in addition to downloading these pilots in their entirety (Bittorrent files are useless unless they are complete), Hibberd or whoever worked with him on this story also uploaded a significant portion of these shows to other pirates.
The only reason people supposedly care right now about this unprofessional behavior is because Fox has overreacted so badly to such a minor incident.
Why don't they understand that this doesn't matter? It doesn't take a fifteen year academic study to figure out that most of the people who pirate movies and TV shows are not potential customers that have been lost. Most people who pirate leaked movies (as opposed to picture perfect "rips" of DVDs after they've been released) don't go to the theater in the first place. Those that download DVD rips rarely buy DVDs, and people who download TV shows do it in numbers that wouldn't significantly alter their ratings.
If 200,000 people download the newest episode of Heroes, for example, then you might say that 500,000-600,000 will have downloaded it across all major torrent sites. That's not even a single ratings point, and for a show like Heroes that needs all the help it can get lately, numbers that small would not make a difference in the end.
Television shows live and die by 3-4 ratings points, not 0.6.
I'm not arguing that copyright infringement doesn't matter at all, nor do I believe it's a victimless crime. There are certainly a lot of people that do download movies but also go to the theater, just as there are people who download TV shows but also buy DVD box sets as well. Those people are costing the industry a lot of money -- how much is anybody's guess and the numbers can vary wildly -- and their behavior should be condemned and ideally punished in some way.
But even then, we're talking about numbers that don't warrant this exaggerated outrage. Ticket sales for Wolverine are not going to drop significantly just because people how have the ability to download and watch it early. And even if the mixed reviews keep some people away that had intended to see it in the theater before, then that's not the fault of piracy so much as it is Fox's fault for making a mediocre movie.
If the real reason that Fox is upset is because the leaked version is getting mixed and even bad reviews, then their outrage is that they've lost the ability to sucker an unknowing audience into buying a ticket to see a stinker, not that they are losing a lot of revenue legitimately. A camera recording of this movie was going to make its way onto the Internet within days of its release no matter what Fox says or wants to do, that much is certain.
Anyone who would rather see that than go to a theater is going to wait no matter what.
Perhaps Fox was right to fire Friedman, though I think one error in judgment shouldn't outweigh something like ten years of good service to the company, but if they were, then TelevisionWeek should have fired James Hibberd as well, and nobody should hire him after the fact, if that's really how the industry is going to behave.
Otherwise this is nothing but attention whoring by a studio that has probably known for some time that it didn't have a block buster on its hands, and may be searching for any excuse to blame its disappointing release on someone else.
This is not a criminal act Not a question, I know, but if you're going to ride the faux outrage train, you damn well better at least know what you're talking about. For this guy at hitfix.com and Nikke Finke at Deadline Hollywood and everyone like them, copyright infringement like this is not a crime, it is not a criminal act. Saying such a thing is actually bordering on libel. Running around shooting your mouth off like you're some saint -- give me a break, like you've never pirated a TV show or an MP3 before -- makes you look just as bad, if not worse, than Friedman.
Piracy sucks but it's the world we live in, and it's nothing worth getting so enraged about, especially when this stuff has happened before and will continue happening in the future.
Roger Friedman only got fired because he was dumb enough to pirate a movie made by the same vertically integrated conglom as the one he was working for at the time. Had it been any other studio's movie, none of this would have even made the back page.
Here is the full text of Friedman's review, which Fox pulled down. I haven't read it because I intend to see the film (after it comes out on DVD, the only flick getting me out of the house on the horizon is Star Trek):
Wolverine's Big Surprises: Some Revealed By Roger Friedman
Yes, I've seen "X Men Origins: Wolverine." It wasn't at a screening, either. I found a work in progress print of it, 95 percent completed, on the internet last night. Let's hope by now it's gone.
But the cat is out of the bag, as they say, and the genie is out of the bottle. There's no turning back. But no, I will not tell you the big twist/surprise toward the end. Not now, a whole month away from release. That wouldn't be nice.
Right now, my "cousins" at 20th Century Fox are probably having apoplexy. I doubt anyone else has seen this film. But everyone can relax. I am, in fact, amazed about how great "Wolverine" turned out. It exceeds expectations at every turn. I was completely riveted to my desk chair in front of my computer.
I don't know what the really big headline is here: the fact that "Wolverine" is so good, or that I also found the current top 10 movies in theaters, as well as a turgid domestic drama called "Fireflies in the Garden" with Ryan Reynolds and Julia Roberts -- the latter in a minor role while her husband, Danny Moder, is credited as director of photography.
I did find the whole top 10, plus TV shows, commercials, videos, everything, all streaming away. It took really less than seconds to start playing it all right onto my computer. I could have downloaded all of it but really, who has the time or the room? Later tonight I may finally catch up with Paul Rudd in "I Love You, Man." It's so much easier than going out in the rain!
But back to "Wolverine": this is the prequel to the first "X Men" movie. Directed by Gavin Hood, the film is as cutting edge as it is old fashioned. This may be the big blockbuster film of 2009, and one we really need right now. It's miles easier to understand than "The Dark Knight," and tremendously more emotional. Hood simply did an excellent job bringing Wolverine's early life to the screen.
Hugh Jackman is Wolverine, of course, and he is more a movie star in this movie than ever before. It doesn't hurt that he's spent every waking minute in the gym. Hood doesn't hide that. Jackman fans will get their fill of their hero. He's joined by a phenomenal cast, too -- Liev Schreiber as his evil but equally clawed brother, Victor, aka Sabretooth; Ryan Reynolds (he gets a lot of work, that's for sure) as Deadpool; Dominic Monagan as Beak; Kevin Durand as the Blob; and the sensational sort of Han Solo-ish Taylor Kitsch as Gambit. There's also sultry Lynn Collins as Wolverine's love interest, and Danny Huston as the villainous Colonel Stryker.
I do think the film works so beautifully because the screenplay is so streamlined. David Benioff (whose real name, I read, is David Friedman -- he's married to Amanda Peet) carefully delineated these characters and did a smashing job. I had less trouble following this story than the one in "Fireflies in the Garden." He's made "Wolverine" just the right kind of summer entertainment -- a thrill ride with lots of emotional investment and a hero simply bigger than life. That's all you can ask for.
Now, I did see "Wolverine" on a large, wide computer screen, and not in a movie theater, but it could not have played better. Still, this was a workprint and there were about a dozen things not finished. A couple of times it was possible to see the harnesses on the actors. It didn't take away from the film at all. But obviously someone who had access to a print uploaded the film onto this website. This begs several questions about security. Time to round up the usual suspects!