Actress Sophie Porley arrives for a special fan event for the Marvel film ‘Black Widow’ in London June 29. The movie was the most pirated movie in the world for three consecutive weeks after its July 9 release, according to TorrentFreak, a site that monitors piracy activity. (Photo: Reuters)
Millions of people are watching high-quality, pirated online versions of Hollywood’s best movies sooner than ever after release, undermining potential ticket sales and subscriber growth as the industry embraces streaming.
Copies of many of the year’s most popular films, from The Suicide Squad and Godzilla vs. Kong for Jungle Cruise and Black Widowclimbed almost immediately after their premieres to the top of the most downloaded charts on piracy websites such as Pirate Bay and LimeTorrents, according to piracy tracking organizations.
Black Widow was the most pirated film in the world for three consecutive weeks after its July 9 release, according to TorrentFreak, a site that monitors piracy activity, while copies of Jungle Cruise proliferated on the Internet just hours after its digital premiere later that same month.
The speed of access to illegal DVD-quality copies of new movies is a recent phenomenon. Previously, high-quality dubs mostly hit piracy sites months after a movie’s theatrical release. Occasionally poor quality versions could be downloaded, but these were often created by people in movie theaters filming with camcorders or cellphones, and many deemed them unwatchable.
Piracy experts and theater executives say the proliferation of illegal, higher-quality copies becoming available earlier threatens the revenue that studios and streaming services could raise at box offices and by adding subscribers.
Of the 20 most pirated films in Pirate Bay on a recent Tuesday in August, 12 had been released on studio streaming services. Warner Bros.’ The Suicide Squad was #1, followed by HBO Max’s Friends meeting.
Walt Disney Co. Black Widow, Cruel and Jungle Cruise – all of the company’s Disney+ streaming service offerings – were in the top 10, not far above Disney’s LucasUniversal images’ boss baby sequel, Paramount + Infinite and four Warner Bros. titles. all of which premiered on HBO Max.
Although film industry and piracy experts say it’s difficult to track the impact of studios’ newly adopted digital distribution strategies on overall piracy volume, data shows the pandemic has triggered an increase .
“We started to see a massive increase when the lockdowns started,” said Andy Chatterley, managing director of piracy tracker Muso, which has even seen an increase in piracy among family titles such as Paramount Pictures. sonic the hedgehog when children started skipping school in March 2020.
“Netflix without a password” is how the founder of TorrentFreak, who goes by the name Ernesto Van Der Sar, describes illegal sites.
Actress Scarlett Johansson and her team cited piracy issues as the reason they wanted to avoid posting Black Widow on Disney+ simultaneously, according to a person familiar with the matter.
It’s a dispute that contributed to the breakdown of negotiations over the star’s salary, leading Ms Johansson to sue the studio earlier this month.
Theater owners’ suspicions about Black Widow the hack came when the film’s opening weekend total failed to meet expectations based on well-attended Thursday night preview screenings.
Executives can usually predict how a movie will perform based on early ticket sales, but Black Widow saw a bigger-than-expected overnight drop as pirated copies proliferated, according to piracy tracking sites.
“How much money did everyone lose because of the simultaneous hack?” asked the National Association of Theater Owners in a statement after the film’s release.
Disney and Warner Bros. of AT&T Inc. declined to comment. Universal and Paramount did not respond to requests for comment.
Studios typically use internal units that monitor when content is pirated and request the removal of pirate links. They also fund piracy advocacy groups that cooperate with law enforcement and lobby policymakers to tighten regulations and penalties.
Major releases of 2021 have seen a high degree of piracy, even when they performed well in theaters.
Warner Bros.’ The conjuration: the devil made me do it grossed a respectable $201.4 million theatrically globally, but was also the world’s most pirated film in June, according to Muso, with 9.2 million illegal streams, including more than 1, 1 million in the United States
Despite the piracy, streaming strategies have paid off during the pandemic. Wall Street encouraged subscriber growth for Disney+, Netflix and HBO Max as most US theaters remained closed.
In many cases, the most pirated movies were released simultaneously online and in theaters, and bootlegging reduced what studios could have earned, not only at the box office, but also from new movie sign-ups. subscription – potentially driven by new movie releases – – or additional fees streaming services sometimes charge to watch new movies, executives and piracy experts say.
Stay-at-home orders led to the practice, with sites that hosted illegal movies and TV shows attracting more than 137 billion visits last year, according to the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment, an advocacy group funded by media companies, including Hollywood studios.
Before the pandemic, the global box office generated around $40 billion in revenue a year.
Behind the scenes, film producers, executives and stars are voicing their concerns over the issue.
Earlier this year, the high volume of global piracy of Godzilla vs. Kong surprised executives at his studio, Warner Bros., according to people familiar with the matter. According to Muso, people have illegally streamed the movie more than 34 million times.
When Disney released Jungle Cruisewith Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, on Disney+, a community of tens of thousands of people was both “sowing” – that is, sharing an illegal copy – and “blooding” – by downloading the movie for free – within a day of its release, according to piracy tracking sites.
Disney, which charged Disney+ users an additional $30 to watch the film on the platform, said it earned $30 million from subscribers during the film’s opening weekend.
“Hackers behave like consumers,” said Michael D. Smith, a Carnegie Mellon University professor and hacking expert. “If you complicate it enough that they get something for free, they’ll pay for it.”
Streaming technology has improved the quality of pirated content. People can either download near-perfect versions of a movie, using special files called torrents, or stream counterfeit copies online.
Culprits and sites that get caught are quickly replaced by new ones, says Professor Smith.
A streaming Hollywood first also made it possible to share captioned copies almost instantly.
In the past, foreign audiences generally struggled to get high-quality subtitled versions. Now Disney+ and HBO Max can offer movies and TV shows in more than a dozen languages, providing illegal downloaders with ready-made versions for foreign audiences.
Disney+ is not available in China and Black Widow didn’t make it out there, but Kevin He, an avid Marvel fan, a 25-year-old college student in Beijing, managed to watch it by uploading a high-quality 4K version almost immediately after the film’s US premiere.
After finding links for the film on an online forum known as Douban, Mr. He says he found several copies of Black Widow reproduced at different levels of quality.
The version he downloaded did not include Chinese subtitles, but he says he easily found some to graft onto his pirated copy.
Mr. He also said he found links to Wanda Vision and Loki – two Marvel series both broadcast on Disney+ – by searching on Baidu, a Chinese search engine.
Rich Gelfond, chief executive of theater chain IMAX Corp., said increased piracy and lower revenue could have a lasting impact on Hollywood.
“It will limit the quality of content created and distributed,” he said.
While it’s unclear exactly how much piracy has shaped studio decisions, some are revisiting online release strategies crafted over the past year.
Earlier this month, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., the nation’s largest movie theater chain, said it had reached an agreement with Warner Bros. for next year, guaranteeing that the studio’s films would enjoy 45 days of theatrical exclusivity before going online.
The deal went back on an existing simulcast strategy.
Disney said it would continue to release movies online and in theaters, deciding details on a movie-by-movie basis. His next Marvel movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will only be in theaters.