Hostel Part II, Sicko & the piracy leaks

Hostel Part II and Sicko are two films that have been leaked onto download sites before they've hit UK cinemas. And one director, Eli Roth, is having his say...

The, er, 'pleasant' poster for Hostel Part II

Here in the UK, neither Hotel Part II nor the new Michael Moore documentary Sicko have got anywhere near the inside of a cinema.

And yet thousands of Brits have already seen both.

In fact, even before the films had their American release, both had fallen victim to a bizarre and worrying trend: ripped DVD versions of both were available to download, entirely illegally, from the Internet.

And instead of heading off to the local fleapit, it seems many people downloaded a copy and watched it in their own homes. Without the film makers seeing a penny.

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Now there are umpteen questions to be answered here, but firstly, there’s been, it seems, an impact to the downloading. Focusing primarily on Hostel Part II, this is the sequel to the low budget hit of a year or two back. The original Hostel scored a healthy return of just short of $50m in the US, and nearly $90m in total. The sequel is now leaving US cinemas after a handful of weeks, with barely $15m in the bank. Director Eli Roth, on his MySpace blog, seems in little doubt where the finger should be pointed:

“However, piracy has become worse than ever now, and a stolen workprint (with unfinished music, no sound effects, and no VFX) leaked out on line before the release, and is really hurting us, especially internationally. Piracy will be the death of the film industry, as it killed the music industry, and while it makes a smaller dent in huge movies like Spider-man 3, it really hurts films like mine, which have far less of an advertising and production budget. Not only that, critics have actually been REVIEWING the film based off the pirated copy, which is inexcusable. Some of these critics I have actually known for a few years, and while I wouldn’t dignify them by mentioning them by name, I know who they are, as do the studios, and other filmmakers, and they will no longer have any access to any of my films”.It’s hard not to have sympathy for Roth. Even though his film has made his money back, the low returns have borderline killed any hope of a threequel, and is throwing into jeopardy the international release campaign that generated around 30-40% of the original’s take. We don’t necessary agree with everything he says – has the music industry been killed and we just hadn’t noticed? – but you have to feel that a quality pirated version floating around the Internet is going to have a box office impact of sorts (predictions have been varying from a $5m to $15m hit).

Yet in the midst of this, somewhere, is a huge problem, the elephant in the room that nobody seems to want to talk about: where exactly are these leaks coming from?

Hollywood studios have been quick to lecture their customers on the perils of evil – to the point where legal punters have to sit through umpteen forced ads at the movies and on their DVDs – but surely it’s people within the system that are leaking these films?

Hostel Part II would have had a fair stab at the box office had someone, who had the access to get to a point where they had a DVD of the workprint, not stuck it online. And it really does beg the question of what happened?

Michael Moore, readying himself for the release of Sicko in the US on 29th June, has been silent on the DVD leak of his movie. He, infamously, failed to condemn those who downloaded ripped version of his last release, Fahrenheit 9/11, but by then that film was well on the way to a nine-figure take. There’s real thinking that Sicko’s returns could be hit quite hard. Guestimates prior to the leak argued a $20-25m take was the target for Sicko. And we’ll soon find out if that’s the case.

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Eli Roth, in the concluding part of his blog post, does offer a call-to-action for his fans:

“To counter piracy, fans can flood file sharing services with fake Hostel II downloads just so no one can ever actually get the movie, but the only thing that really makes a difference is supporting the movie in the theatres”.Yet there is another angle to the piracy debate that continues to be ignored, though. And that’s that movies have, through faster broadband connections, been shared over torrent networks for a good number of years now. Yet still, as a UK resident, while this scribe can buy a music track online from any number of sources, options for buying a properly-priced, strong quality movie download – without it being hampered to the point of borderline unusable by digital rights management – are far more limited.

Downloading is, whether the movie studios like it or lump it, pretty much guaranteed to be a major force in home film distribution now (far more so than HD DVD and Blu-ray, upon which millions upon billions are being spent), and as iTunes proved, if you provide a legal mechanism that mirrors the illegal sources, people will pay.

And while that may be too late for Hotel Part II, and may yet not be enough for Sicko, surely – surely? – the time has come to properly support the downloading bandwagon. Because every minute a good legal service is lacking, it seems money is slipping through the fingers of the movie studios. And they don’t like that.