Will Pirates Sink the Pirate Boat that Rocked?

Despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, the MPAA and its allies in the content industries constantly declare that it is, “impossible to compete with free.”  As recently as this September, Frederick Huntsberry, the Chief Operating Officer of Paramount Pictures declared before an FCC hearing that, “ultimately no industry can compete with free.”  He was referring to the wide existence of video-camera generated bootleg copies of the most recent J. J. Abrams directed Star Trek film from his studio, despite the fact these horrible looking “cams” did not prevent the movie from grossing in excess of $250 million in the U.S. alone.

But is the issue alone one of resolution and visual quality?  If there had been a pristine version of Star Trek available at the same time, or even prior to its official theatrical release, would that have appreciably decreased box office revenue?  I spoke with someone affiliated with the X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie that “suffered” from the leak of an almost finished work print just prior to theatrical release and he was adamant that the leak had had a profoundly negative impact on the film’s box office (although personally I would ascribe that more to negative word of mouth about a pretty crappy movie than to the specific effects of piracy).

Nonetheless, there are cases where the theatrical release of a film has to “compete with free” in the form of a high quality, even high definition copy of the film being available online.  Numerous foreign films are released into theaters, and even as DVD’s or Blu -Rays around the world prior to their official appearance in the U.S.  Are these films, admittedly not on the same scale expectations wise from blockbusters like Star Trek or Wolverine, yet still able to perform reasonably well financially?  Are they able to attract movie-goers when those same consumers could so easily obtain a copy of the film via Bittorrent, Usenet or Direct Download, even at full 1080p resolution?

This past Friday saw the U.S. release of the film Pirate Radio, also known as The Boat That Rocked when it first came out in its native Great Britain earlier in the year.  During the seven month delay in its arrival on these shores both DVD and Blu -Ray versions of the film came out in non-American markets, ensuring that even U.S. viewers would have access via the Internet to copies.  In fact, a cam version debuted on Piratebay soon after theatrical release, with DVD and Blu-Ray rips appearing in mid-August, eminently available to anybody around the world with an Internet connection.

Given all these “free” alternatives, how did Pirate Radio do in its first weekend in the U.S. market?  While its gross intake was relatively modest, at just under $3 million for an 11th place finish, more importantly, Pirate Radio did very well on a per-theater average, taking in $3,293 per theater, which actually puts it in third place among films in wide-release for the weekend.  While it is impossible to know with any real certainty what impact downloads of the DVD or Blu -Ray rips may have had on Pirate Radio’s box office, the film appears to have done pretty well, especially considering its foreign origin, subject matter and rather middling reviews (57% on the Rotten Tomato scale).

Somehow the forces behind the movie found a way to “compete with free” and position it to be profitable in the U.S., even before its inevitable DVD andBlu -Ray releases here.  Maybe the existence of free versions on the Internet did less to drive down demand for the film, but instead fostered awareness and interest in the movie above and beyond what the producers were able to do via PR and advertising.