We could soon learn more about whether illegal file sharing is a friend or foe to a movie debut.
Sicko, the documentary about the health-care industry from director Michael Moore is due to be released on Friday. To several thousand fans of YouTube, Google Video and The PirateBay, the movie's opening came a week earlier. That's when bootleg copies began cropping up at those places.
Any studio exec will say each illegal download represents a lost ticket sale. That's food out of the mouths of cinematographers, actors, costumers and best boys, the studio suit will huff.
Not so, say those that download. Typically their argument goes something like this: The Internet promotes movies like nothing else. People who really enjoy a film they watch online will often plunk down cash for a DVD or movie ticket. True film fans want high quality copies for their video libraries and also put a premium on the big-screen experience.
I believe some of that. I'm a movie buff and if I like a film I see in the theater I'll pick up the DVD. But what many in Hollywood are skeptical about is whether the masses will pay for something that they can get for free.
Over the next week or so, I'm planning to keep tabs on how Sicko does at the box office as well as track the number of unauthorized copies being shared. The goal of course is to learn whether illegal downloads actually depress ticket sales.
Some anecdotal evidence already indicates that they don't.
First, the controversy over the pirated copies that appeared last weekend generated plenty of headlines for Sicko. Nobody associated with the movie is going to be distressed about that. On the sites where the bootlegs appeared scores of comments were posted and that's the kind of word-of-mouth promotion marketers love.
And what about Moore's controversial film, Fahrenheit 9/11? Despite being widely pirated, the movie's $119 million in U.S. ticket sales made it the highest grossing documentary of all time.
Moore himself sides with the bootleggers.
"I don't agree with the copyright laws," Moore said during a press conference three years ago. "I don't have a problem with people downloading the movie and sharing it as long as they aren't doing it to make a profit off my labor. I would oppose that."
Not every artist sees it the same way, of course. Certainly, the people who bankrolled Moore's latest picture don't.
"We at the Weinstein Company (the movie's producer) are outraged by illegal piracy," said Peter Hurwitz, the company's general counsel, in a statement.
As for tracking the film's progress, here's the tally so far: over the weekend, the copies of Sicko that appeared at YouTube and Google Video were viewed over 1,000 times before they were removed. At the PirateBay and Mininova, copies have been downloaded more than four thousand times combined. If you know about any other sites, please feel free to pass them along.