the-expendables-3Did the pre-release piracy of Expendables 3 play a role in an abysmal opening weekend box office?

When a high-quality copy of Expendables 3 starring Sylvester Stallone was stolen and released on pirate (torrent) websites last month and downloaded millions of times, the were fears that the theft would hurt the film’s return at the box office.  Looking at this weekend’s results for the 3rd installment of the popular franchise, it would seem those fears have become a reality as the film earned an anemic 16.2 million, 10 million less than expected.  From  in Variety:

“This is really a clear situation where this had an impact,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst of “It’s hard to measure, but the ripple effect, not only of the downloads, but of the word-of-mouth that spread as a result, can be seen in the soft opening.”

The film’s initial numbers are the worst in series history. The original “Expendables” launched to $34.8 million in 2010 while the second installment debuted to $28.6 in 2012.

Variety cites other possible factors beyond piracy, like “franchise fatigue”, that may have played a role in the disappointing returns, but given the fact that the film missed expectations by a whopping 10 million dollars the pre-release piracy was most certainly a factor in the equation.  As Lang writes:

However, some research suggests that piracy can take a big chunk out of ticket sales. A 2011 study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers found that when a film is pirated prior to release, it loses nearly 20 percent of its potential revenue.

Why pay to see a film at the theater when you can see a high-quality version online, for free?  It’s the lament of filmmakers worldwide who regularly see their works stolen and distributed by online thieves.  Let’s remember, of course, that these online web pirates DO make money and it comes at the expense the filmmakers (and their investors).

The fact that the piracy of Expendables 3 took place  three weeks before it’s planned release made it particularly damaging.  Piracy apologists probably cheer the damage done to Hollywood and care little about those who make their livings working to produce films like this.   Others do care.  The California legislature is poised to pass AB 1839 a bill  increase the state’s film production tax credits four-fold in order to keep the film production industry (and the people who work for it) in California.  As one of the bill’s co-sponsor told the Washington Post:

“I’ve heard from so many people over the past year who have told me about their family being torn apart because production left the state,” Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D), a bill co-sponsor, said in a statement.  “This proactive effort ensures well-paying jobs stay in California and families remain together.”

Tax credits aside, another way to keep the film industry healthy is to do more to combat the scourge of online piracy. Lionsgate, the studio distributing Expendables 3, has already gone to court in an effort to blunt further damage, but nothing can undo what’s been done.  Hollywood has taken a hit and so too have those who earn their living working there.