An Experiment in “Red”

An Experiment in “Red”

One of the frustrating issues for analysts of the file-sharing phenomenom is that so much of what we know, or think we know, about it rests not on any real numbers but on our beliefs and suppositions.  Statistics thrown around by the rights-holding organizations like the MPAA, the RIAA or the BSA are notoriously unreliable, while the illegal and highly fragmented nature of P2P networks themselves makes it impossible to get any dependable numbers from the sharers themselves.

Each side of the argument have their own facts and ideologies, ranging from “you can’t compete with free” or “each download is a lost sale” to “P2P users buy more than any other fans” or “file-sharing increases awareness.” Nonetheless, it is always interesting when a situation arises that allows for some real-world testing.

On Friday October 15 the film “Red” was released, a relatively big budget action film starring Bruce Willis.  Unusually, earlier in the week a “screener” copy of the film had appeared on popular P2P networks.  Normally, the major film studios go to great lengths to prevent this kind of leak.  In their view, the availability of a film “for free” inevitably means that no one will pay to see it in theaters.  However, in this specific case, that proved incorrect, as Red did reasonably well at the box office, earning $22.5 million for the weekend, with a per-theater average of almost $7,000, coming in second to the surprisingly strong Jackass 3-D.

As we said above, there is no real way of knowing how many people downloaded the free copy of Red in the week leading up to its release.  The evidence suggests, however, that it was a large number.  According to the well-respected TorrentFreak, Red was the number one downloaded movie for the week of October 10-17on Bittorrent.  And a quick peek at the Pirate Bay shows that just one of the many competing versions of Red available currently has over 10,000 seeders right now.  So, while we may not know how many people could have seen Red for free, it is likely to in the tens of thousands at least.

Is there anything compelling we can take from this unintended experiment with the film Red?  For one thing, it is clear that the studios are still quite capable of competing with free, as Red’s decent box office does demonstrate.  According to the LA Times analysis of Red’s opening weekend, the movie did especially well with older audiences, and the word of mouth for the film was strong, as shown by a 26% increase from Friday to Saturday sales.  Of course, we have no way of knowing what the box office might have been without the leak, but it seems that the film did about what was expected of it, irrespective of the leak’s existence.

Ultimately, even with a unique case like Red, though, what we don’t know far outnumbers what we do.  Are there people out there that might have gone to see the movie in theaters if the option of watching it at home for free did not exist?  Are there viewers who watched the free copy but enjoyed it enough to go see it in theaters anyway?  Did home viewers help to spread the good word of mouth about the film, which may have resulted in higher box office?  Is a film with an older skewing audience more immune to P2P effects?

None of these questions are easily answered, even if they seem to fit into widely-held “common sense” suppositions about file-trading, as we just don’t have the necessary hard data to clearly prove things one way or the other.  We should definitely be very wary of what data we do see, and be even more careful about any conclusions that are drawn from those numbers.