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There are news reports all throughout entertainment media this week speculating as to why The Expendables 3 underperformed at the domestic box office this weekend. As Brooks Barnes reported in the Times , the film took in $16.2 million, which is 50 percent less than The Expendables 2 took in on its opening weekend in 2012. The film became available for torrent download over the summer after a pre-release leak, and there's no question that this affected ticket sales to one degree or another, although just how much sales were affected is unclear.
Research has indicated that torrents tend to be most problematic when films are not available.
As I wrote earlier this summer, the VOD success of Snowpiercer - an action film that received something close to a day-and-date VOD release - indicates that audiences are warming up to the idea of seeing big-budget blockbusters on their laptops at the same time that they come out in theaters. Studios and exhibitors are going to have to warm up to this idea as the filmgoing audience that is hooked on the theatrical experience ages, and younger viewers who have grown up watching films on laptops come to dominate the filmgoing public.
Regardless of to what degree piracy hurt the box office of The Expendables 3, it seems apparent that distributors that restrict the platforms on which their releases are available are only making themselves vulnerable to the damage that can be done with a torrent leak. Research has indicated that torrents tend to be most problematic when films are not available - if a film is available on iTunes, say, its torrent downloads are going to be less significant than if the film is only available in theaters.
Yet in the case of The Expendables 3, the downloads occurred before the film's release. How to factor this in? It makes me wonder if studios are going to keep experimenting with the idea of "Super-VOD" pricing - that is, making new releases available via VOD in advance of their theatrical debuts, at a significant cost. Even if The Expendables 3 had been available for a significant sum, I speculate it would have brought in some decent revenue via VOD in advance of its release. The picture quality difference between a VOD purchase and an illegal torrent download can't be overlooked by a viewer, especially someone who wants to see an action spectacle with stuff blowing up in all its pyrotechnic glory.
If distributors keep trying to cater to the tastes of the younger generation of filmgoers, they may find unexpected success.
Super VOD certainly has not been worked out yet, and it may be a long ways off - but having any options to hedge against pre-release piracy will be a helpful thing for distributors. It won't entirely solve the problem of piracy, but no single solution will, and regardless, it's a step in the right direction. Piracy thrives when there is no availability; if distributors keep trying to cater to the tastes of the younger generation of filmgoers, they may find unexpected success.