Next week is going to be a real test of movie piracy and its effect on box office receipts. Earlier this month, the movie Wolverine, a Hugh Jackman-starring spin-off/prequel of the X-Men trilogy, was leaked online, and estimates say that nearly a million people saw it for free.

Jackman, who's also a producer of the movie, told the press that he was "heartbroken" about the leak. His assumption, of course, is that a million fewer people would now be paying to see the movie.
I would guess the figure is significantly lower than that. Even if a million people did catch the film online (and I find that number a little to high to believe), it must be assumed that a fair number of those viewers are die-hard fans to begin with. As Entertainment Weekly put it, "the conventional wisdom is that the people who download movies also tend to be the alpha-fans who pay to see the same film multiple times in theaters."

Then there's this: The copy of the film that got out there was an unfinished work print, lacking special effects shots and not properly edited. It's even 10 minutes shorter than the final film. As Jackman put it, "it's like a Ferrari without a paint job." Nonetheless, the FBI is on the case, and it's said that the leak will probably be tracked to a company doing job work for the studio.

I'm not for pirating. It's wrong, and it takes bread out of the mouths of artists. But let's not forget that last year, a little movie called The Dark Knight was also leaked online, and it did phenomenally well at the box office. People go see movies in the cinemas when they're actually good, and it must be said that Wolverine may not be that good, leak or no leak: It underwent some re-shoots and doctoring late in the game. (Of course, it's also hard to prove that it wouldn't have grossed just a few million more had it not appeared online, even in an early version.)

Will Wolverine be the first movie to be felled by piracy? We'll know for sure on May 1, when it opens in America (it opens in the U.K. April 29), but it's unlikely. In China, the piracy scourge is truly dire, and there's barely even a market for some forms of entertainment there because of the bootlegging. But this isn't China.

If Wolverine scores an $80 million opening the way some analysts are predicting, the studios may not have much public support to continue blasting us with anti-piracy ads at the start of every DVD we rent. It's bad enough that most of us aren't stealing movies -- we still have to endure the clamor of their accusations that we are.

It's judgment day, Hollywood. Are you crying, um, wolf?

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