I wasn't going to name names, but it's pointless now. Someone at 20th Century Fox is in big, big trouble. An apparently full-length DVD quality work print of one of their biggest summer pictures, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, has been leaked to the internet a full month before release. Since the film isn't out yet and no one in the know has commented, we cannot say how recent the cut of this film is. The film is allegedly pretty much complete, save for certain unfinished special effects shots and what not. Reviews (which I have not read) are popping up all over the internet as we speak.
While I have not watched the print, I did take a twenty-second gander (for confirmation) at a streaming video site (after updating my anti-virus software) and I can say that the image and sound are pretty much low-grade DVD quality. Rumors are sure to begin regarding how in the hell this happened and who is responsible. With a copy this (allegedly) good, it's pretty obvious that someone high up the food chain is responsible. Could it be a general annoyed and/or glory seeking Fox employee? Could it be someone upset over the supposed behind the scenes tinkering of Gavin Hood's original concept? Which begs the question, if the finished film ends up being different, is this the cut that existed prior to the meddling? If this cut is not the final cut, then the only plausible reason to leak it (aside from just creating chaos) would be if it was a prior version that represented director Gavin Hood's preferred version. That would be the best case scenario for Fox, as if it really is a 'director's cut', then the geeks will now still have to see the final product in theaters for comparison. My advice to Fox - spend the next month emphasizing how different the leaked cut is to the final print, regardless of whether that's true.
Two years ago, a perfect print of Sicko was leaked online about a week before release, with blame being assigned to everyone from political opponents of Michael Moore to Michael Moore himself. Regardless of who is responsible, this is the rare case where piracy is a genuine news story. This isn't a work print of Hostel 2 released a week or so before release. This isn't a radically different cut of Rob Zombie's Halloween leaking days before release. This is an apparently 90% complete DVD-quality copy of one of the summer's biggest films being leaked online a full month before its theatrical release. This is relatively virgin territory and everyone will be watching the box office for tea leaves.
The only thing I can remember approaching this is the leak of a very early work print of Ang Lee's Hulk a few weeks before the theatrical release back in June, 2003. Some viewers ripped on the film online, complaining of poor (uncompleted) special effects, but most people who cared knew that the film was not as it would be seen in theaters (yes, the film was a financial failure, but remember that it still broke the June opening weekend record with $62 million). If Hulk is the precedent, then the effect on the box office should be minimal. Even if this is as almost perfect as claimed, the vast majority of people do not know how and do not care to download movies and watch them on their computer.
Although, playing devil's advocate, this is not Taken or Gran Torino. This is a $100 million+ tent pole picture that is specifically targeting the very demographic that knows how to download movies. This may be the first real test of the effects of piracy on tent-pole movie going. Plus, you have countless fan boys who still blame Fox for the Watchmen debacle and would theoretically see this as their revenge. If the box office takes a hit, you can be sure you'll hear Jeffrey Katzenberg again trumpeting 3D as the savior of the industry. And, among the major summer spectacles, Wolverine is indeed vulnerable as it is not being goosed in any way (no 3D, no IMAX), that would theoretically demand a trip to the theater.
On the plus side, if the film ends up under performing, 20th Century Fox now has an airtight, media-friendly excuse that cannot truly be challenged or refuted (which, if the film is lousy, will lead to goofy conspiracy theories that Fox leaked it intentionally to give the film an excuse to fail). Come what may, this is just another reminder that the real piracy threat comes from within the studio, not from some movie critic who just wants to keep his cell phone on his person in case of an emergency.
For more thoughts, including the (purely speculative) possibility of Fox actually committing insurance fraud via intentional leaking, as well as updates from the studio, go to Mendelson's Memos. This story is not going to go away anytime soon.