FBI agents have started looking for whoever uploaded to the Web an incomplete version of the unreleased movie "X-Men Origins: Wolverine."
The film, which reportedly cost $100 million to make, was not scheduled for theatrical release until May 1 but was leaked to the Web Tuesday evening. Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Los Angeles field office, said Thursday that the agency is responsible for investigating copyright infringement and allegations of piracy.
She said the bureau received a call within the last 24 hours from 20th Century Fox, the News Corp.-owned studio that produced "Wolverine." At this early stage in the investigation, Eimiller said the agency is without suspects.
However, studio representatives told news agency Reuters because of forensic marks, the authorities would be able to trace the source of the leak.
Studios embed identification marks on prints and film copies and that's how authorities tracked down Kerry Gonzalez. He was the New Jersey man who uploaded the superhero film "Hulk" to the Web weeks before its 2003 theatrical release. Gonzalez pleaded guilty to felony copyright infringement charges and was sentenced to six months house arrest and ordered to pay a $7,000 fine.
That case is an example of how hard it is for studios to protect their multimillion-dollar products, according to a film industry insider.
Gonzalez had nothing to do with the movie business. He told FBI agents that he obtained a videotape copy of the film print from a friend who worked at an advertising agency connected with the movie.
The problem comes down to two issues: lots of different people need access to a working print of a feature film. The second problem is the Internet hands anyone the power to disseminate digital information to a vast audience with little effort or expense.
"You have to realize that toy manufacturers, advertisers, editing houses, preview houses, they all need access to some form of the film cut," said the industry source. When it comes to business partners, the studios are "only as safe as the partner company's last hire."
"When they find this guy," the source continued, "and they will, he will become the poster child for never doing this again."
Not everyone agrees that a movie is harmed by this kind of early Internet release.
"Sicko," director Michael Moore's documentary on the health care industry, appeared on the Web a week before being screened in theaters. The film still saw a respectable opening when compared to other documentaries.
Some say the Web can act as a promotional tool for films, provided that they receive positive word of mouth. In the case of the "Hulk," the movie was widely panned after going out on the Web. When it reached theaters, the film saw a big opening but quickly lost steam and is considered a financial flop.