Is leaking footage the new way to get a movie greenlit?

New Deadpool, Alien and Spider-Man movies are all pressing ahead - but do they have a leak to thank for it?

In days of old, if movie studios were concerned about the potential audience for a movie they were thinking of investing in, they jumped straight in with a bit of research. Appreciating there’s always been a bit of guesswork involved, throughout the ’90s, many studios were using computer programs that modelled the possible audience for future projects. If the numbers didn’t stack up, it wasn’t necessarily an instant deal breaker, but it did seem like the computer had the right to say no.

This year, however, there’s a real sense that the tide is beginning to turn. That whilst projections, spreadsheets, guesswork, and the success or otherwise of similar films have their part to play, that there’s now a way to instantly gauge interest in a potential project.

Three films that have been announced in recent months have felt the benefit of this. DeadpoolSpider-Man, and Alien 5. And each of them have been carried to the green light line off the back of a groundswell of interest in materials leaked – legally or otherwise – online.

Deadpool, right now, is the most obvious, acknowledged beneficiary. 20th Century Fox had been umming and aahing for several years about the Ryan Reynolds-headlined X-Men spin-off. And the project could well have been dead in the water had Warner Bros’ Green Lantern taken off, with its requirement for Reynolds to commit to multiple sequels for it. But Green Lantern didn’t, and the interview questions to Reynolds always seemed to have a Deadpool flavoring to them from that point on. If not before.

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The turning point, though, was footage that was apparently illegally leaked online. This footage, in fact…

This was at the end of July 2014, where the above test footage that had been shot for Deadpool (ironically, to help sell the movie to Fox, who eventually bought it) turned up online. All concerned have confirmed that this was not an official leak, but if that’s the case, it was certainly a fortuitous one. Whilst Deadpool was still bubbling in development at the studio, with director Tim Miller attached, there didn’t seem to be much sign of the starting gun being fired. Throw in the rumours of a required PG-13 rating – since downplayed – and it looked as if a standalone Deadpool movie, starring Ryan Reynolds and that captured the tone of the comics, was a long shot.

The leak, as Reynolds has admitted, changed everything.

At the end of January, he said that he would have leaked the test material himself, but “I would have Fox’s lawyers so far up my ass they could smell Wade Wilson’s feet”. However, the reaction to the footage was hugely positive. It went viral, and evidence of a sizeable groundswell of support for a Deadpool movie was suddenly apparent. Fox got cracking, greenlit the film last December, and production starts next month. With Kingsman also now proving that an R-rating isn’t box office poison where comic book movies are concerned, the chances are that Deadpool won’t end up as PG-13 either. Don’t hold us to that, of course.

Lest you be in any doubt, as Deadpool creator Rob Leifeld told Cinemablend last autumn, “I had meetings on the Fox lot that following week [after the leak], and that Deadpool footage was all the buzz. It had an impact. You could see it and feel it in the executive suites. It was palatable. I absolutely believe that the leaked footage served as one of those signature moments when fandom united across all social media platforms and made their voices heard”.

Bluntly: if that footage hadn’t had leaked, the general consensus is that a Deadpool movie wouldn’t start shooting in a few weeks.

But as it turns out, it’s the first of three examples here. The much talked about cyber attack on Sony’s servers before Christmas generated an abundance of illegally obtained stories, one or two of which have now become official. The big one is that Sony and Marvel are collaborating on Spider-Man, and that the character is joining the Marvel cinematic universe.

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Given that much of the discussions here took place firmly behind closed doors, and remain there, we can only pick through rumours. It had been revealed that Sony and Marvel had been in talks, but then subsequent chatter suggested those talks had been abandoned. Yet when the story broke before Christmas, the idea of Marvel getting its creative paws back on the screen adventures of Spider-Man had a hugely positive reaction again.

Was that the catalyst, then, for Marvel and Sony getting the deal done? Or was it the fact that Sony had been through a battering month or two, and needed to get a few ducks in order?

Chances are it may all have happened anyway, but the fan enthusiasm for the idea may well have played a part. We’re now getting a standalone Spider-Manmovie in summer 2017, with fresh casting, and the character will reportedly be part of Captain America: Civil War. The first of many instances where Spider-Man will appear in the Marvel cinematic universe, with MCU faces appearing in Spider-Man films too.

And then we come to Alien 5, which it won’t be called. This one’s slightly different, in that the filmmaker concerned – director Neill Blomkamp – was at the heart of the ‘leak’. In fact, it’s hard to call the release of his concept art for a new Alien film a leak at all. We were led to understand that it was work he’d done for a film that wasn’t happening, and in truth, even when most of us saw it, we figured Fox was more interested in Prometheus 2, than doing an official follow-up to Alien: Resurrection

It turns out that we were right. Fox and Blomkamp don’t want an Alien: Resurrection sequel. Instead, the new film is apparently going to pick up after James Cameron’s Aliens, as if Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection never happened (although Blomkamp has backtracked from that just slightly since). Here’s some of Blomkamp’s artwork…

So what actually happened? We may not know the real answer for some time, but putting together what pieces we have, it’s certain that Blomkamp’s artwork spread like wildfire across the internet. Again, crucially, it was also greeted positively. Yet even in initial interviews afterwards, the idea of it being a feature was downplayed. Until, the week before last, Fox greenlit the new Alien movie, with both Blomkamp and Sigourney Weaver on board.

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Was the ‘leaking’, in this instance, some deliberate market research for Blomkamp, then? Having seen the impact that the Deadpool footage reation had on Fox executives, did he release his work to help grease the wheels, to give added rationale to his pitch? Maybe one day he’ll tell us, but it’s hard not to include that the hugely positive reaction his artwork got had an impact.

It is wise to add a note of caution. Even though social media in particular has the appearance of being the all-encompassing hive opinion of the internet, it does still represent a small subset of a film’s potential audience. Right back at the infancy of the world wide web as we know it in our homes, Showgirls was going to be a huge hit, because the website had enjoyed over a million hits. It wasn’t of course, and the internet’s ability to amplify voices was shown then.

Furthermore, Joe Carnahan’s Daredevil test footage was also released online, but in that instance, it wasn’t enough to persuade Marvel to let Fox retain the feature rights to the character. And then Sony allowed a supposedly leaked trailer for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to play out, earning millions of hits, but that too didn’t quite translate to the box office the studio wanted. This is not a foolproof approach. But it’s an excuse to post that Daredevil sizzle reel again…

The box office performance of DeadpoolSpider-Man, and Alien 5 will, of course, be intensively monitored. But in particular, don’t be surprised to see studio heads looking for clues here. To see if there’s a line between enthusiasm for early leaked materials, and bums on seats when the film concerned arrives in cinemas.

Deadpool is up first, landing in February 2016. And if that hits big, expect Martin Lawrence to release his concept art for Big Momma’s 4 the day after. If that too goes viral, and gets greenlit, then that’d surely confirm that the tide has firmly changed…