Conversations about depressed box office numbers seem to be overlooking the piracy issue: a few thoughts.

Paramount Pictures’ decision to now move its entire slate of films that it was set to unleash before the end of the year into 2022 seems to have been met with, well, not a lot. Frustration that we don’t get to see films like Top Gun: Maverick and Mission: Impossible 7 sooner of course, but there’s not too much surprise anymore in studios shifting films, even with cinemas pretty much fully opened up.

What’s apparently spooked Paramount is the depressed box office returns this summer for even some of the biggest films. It’s well known that Warner Bros was taken aback by the far lower than expected returns for The Suicide Squad, in spite of strong reviews. Likewise, Disney’s Jungle Cruise may have crept over the $100m mark in the US, but in more normal times, the studio would have hoped for double that.


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Against that, some films had fared better. Fast & Furious 9 did good business (albeit lower than previous entries) and Paramount’s own A Quiet Place – Part II was a hit. Plus Peter Rabbit 2 currently sits as the biggest film of the year here in the UK.

When The Suicide Squad stumbled, Variety – amongst other outlets – ran something of a post-mortem on its performance, and questioned why it had fallen short commercially. Lots of good reasons were listed: the ongoing impact of a global pandemic was rightly near the top of the list, coupled with the spread of the delta variant. Then there was the fact that Warner Bros had dropped the film onto its streaming service in the US – HBO Max – on the same day as its cinema release.

Both of these factors contributed of course, and to my untrained eyes to sizeable degrees. The Suicide Squad was one of the biggest viewing weekends on the HBO Max platform to date at that point. And unlike Warner Bros’ Godzilla Vs Kong – that launched the same way – it didn’t have the novelty of being one of the first blockbusters launched once cinemas re-opened too. The odds, as much as it was a comic book movie in a marketplace that liked those, were edging against it.

What’s interesting about that Variety piece – and I’m not attacking it, to be clear – is what it doesn’t mention.

In fact few film websites are talking about this, for pretty obvious reasons. But it feels like the elephant in the room for all of this is piracy. The illegal downloading of movies, that in spite of industry efforts to clamp down on – and there’s lots going on – continues in great numbers. What’s more, it’s now been fuelled by versions quickly ripped from legal download sources, in high quality.

An important note. Just because I’m talking about piracy here, it absolutely does not mean I condone it. It has an impact.

I know someone who threw his heart and soul into funding a small independent film, and then had to watch as it was widely stolen and shared around the world by people who wouldn’t give him a couple of quid for his efforts. It leaves him struggling to fund his latest movie, whereas if everybody had watched the first had even given him a quid he’d been shooting the next by now. That is not an unusual story, and my heart sinks when I see piracy being discussed widely as if it doesn’t have an effect. It really, really does. Heck, I produce independent film magazines – including one for children – and I’ve had those pirated, whilst I struggle to make ends meet. It stings like hell.

I do think all this needs to be discussed, though. Going back to the list of those films that opened and underperformed, what most of them had in common was that they were available on legal download services from day one. And inevitably, once they’re on legal download services, they find their way to the other side.

The news site TorrentFreak keeps regular charts of which films are being illegally downloaded the most, and in a surprise to nobody, The Suicide Squad topped the list the week it landed on HBO Max. It remains in the top three a month later. Surely this has had a notable impact on box office returns too? And in the current climate, not a small one? There’s a bottom line here I’m seeing, that if you don’t go for an exclusive cinema release – with all the risks inherent in that – you’re going to take an instant piracy hit. You’re giving a gift to illegal downloaders.

There has to be some global thinking too. The movie industry has traditionally stuck its head in the sand over geographic borders, imposing region coding on DVDs that punished those legally importing – and paying top dollar – for films. Here, I find it a little bizarre that a similar mistake is being made, even though I appreciate the rights restraints studios are finding themselves under.

That The Suicide Squad’s release on streaming was initially limited to the US was no matter. The film would have spread like wildfire around the world in no time, and by the looks of things did. Appreciating that the HBO Max service isn’t available here in the UK, surely on bigger films there thus needs some more joined up thinking? If a movie lands on one legal streaming or download service, then it’s out of the bag, and it ain’t going back in.

Yet it feels like there’s a fear to talk about all of this, lest it seen to be condoning or promoting the illegal downloading of movies. Behind the scenes though, the conversation is being had more loudly. At the recent CinemaCon convention – as reported on by Deadline – international film distributors and exhibition chiefs cited piracy as the biggest problem for brand new releases.

A straw poll was cited that suggested a third of respondents had watched Marvel’s recent Black Widow via illegal download as opposed to a cinema visit or paying to see it on Disney+ Premier Access. It was also noted that the highest grossing film of the year at that point – Fast & Furious 9 – had been exclusively in cinemas, and thus that’s where people went to see it.

I don’t have the answer for piracy, to be clear, and I wish I did. But it continues to strike me that a scattergun approach is pouring fuel on the problem. It’s idealistic, I appreciate, but a commitment to a small exclusive cinema release for a start surely helps. And then when it does come time for a digital release, give it to us all – legally – at once. It won’t get rid of piracy, and I’m not naïve about that. But give people a legal way to get a film, and a large number tend to take it.

Paramount seems to think that, with its Tom Cruise-headlined movies exclusively reserved for cinemas. Look too at the impressive box office returns for Universal’s Candyman, that’s followed the same path.

I don’t pretend for a second that this isn’t a complex issue. I do think that some a more unified approach might nonetheless be a better way forward. Because right now, something isn’t working, and it feels as though the industry is moving further away from a solution rather than closer.

Polite notice: this site does not condone piracy. If there is any discussion of illegally downloading and sharing films in our comments, it will be removed. Thank you.

Images: BigStock

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