For decades, there has been a strategy in the film business, where big film studios (Warner Bros, Sony etc) release films exclusively into cinemas for a fixed time period (currently three months), in order to milk as much money out of the Box Office as possible. This is where the bulk of revenue for movies comes from. You can’t see the film anywhere else, except inside the walls of a cinema chain (We’ll ignore those terrible copies of the film some lad from Bradford filmed on his phone and put online).

Cinemas share box office ticket sales with film studios, in exchange for a period of exclusivity to screen the ‘must see’ films featuring all your heros. Of course, the spare change made from selling acrid sugary drinks, popcorn and Spicy Chicken Tikka Masala is kept entirely by the Cinema showing the film.

Thus, the protectionist racket held by those drab, noisy, sticky multiplex cinemas is preserved. For some reason, film studios hold these cinemas in high regard and show deference to their music-hall business model. C’mon, who wishes to watch anything while sitting next to someone eating a curry?

Covid-19 has meant that cinemas are closed. There is nowhere for the film studios to show their brand-new films.

Well actually that’s not true. The internet (which I adore) has superseded nearly every medium of communication ever conceived. Cinemas have neither innovated in the last 100 years nor risen to the challenge looming over their business model since video-over-the-internet became viable. Here’s a wild idea; why not skip the cinema release entirely and let consumers rent the film (paying a premium price of course), early, via the internet?

That’s what many film studios have opted to do during the Covid-19 pandemic, in order to keep their film release cycles turning and the revenue flowing. It’s a large scale, non-cinema release experiment for movies made for the cinema.

There has been a very public spat between AMC (the owners of the Odeon cinema chain) and NBCUniversal. You can read about AMC’s tantrum here. AMC have vowed to never show a Universal picture in their cinemas ever again, because NBCUniversal released Trolls World Tour online, early. Thus depriving AMC of revenue. Through this early digital release model Trolls World Tour has made a packet in the United States alone. It looks like film studios don’t really need those cinemas to make money. Whoops, sorry Odeon.

The objections to releasing films digitally before showing them in cinemas are:

  1. Piracy
  2. Less revenue
  3. Less hype

As this is the world’s first foray into big budget, early digital releases, I thought it would be fun and interesting to track online piracy for these films. I’ve developed a tool that tracks the piracy volume on The Pirate Bay, for films released early online. Specifically films which would have been released in cinemas had it not been for Covid-19.

Here is an anecdotal look at two of 2020’s biggest films, which have been released early. You can see how their piracy numbers are shaping up in figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Piracy upload and download profiles for Birds Of Prey and Trolls World Tour

We can see Trolls World Tour took nine days to reach it’s peak. Releasing on the 6th of April and eventually amassing a swarm just shy of 18,000 pirates.

You might notice some strange profiles in the charts. Well, piracy is a scrappy business. The data captured may falter or periodically be wrong. The servers pointing to the pirated files might go down or the connection might drop while the data is being collected… there’s a multitude of reasons. However we can get a good approximation of piracy trends for an individual film, despite some hiccoughs in the stats. Data stops being recorded once a film has been available for 16-weeks.

Scoob!

This is the PVOD (Premium Video On Demand) film this article focusses on. The early digital release for Scoob! is scheduled for the 15th of May 2020. It’s a contender for high piracy because it’s a children’s film, children watch things repeatedly and families are currently stuck at home. As of 12th May there are no copies of this film being shared on The Pirate Bay. Figure 2 shows live data, filtered to include the last 7 days worth of results.

Figure 2

When we reach the 15th May the chart will begin populating with data points, updating every 45 minutes. Unless there is zero interest in this film (unlikely considering Warner Bros will have spent tens of millions of dollars on it), the numbers should at least reach the same threshold as can be seen in Trolls World Tour above.

These figures will be an strong indication of piracy volume for early digital release films.

I want more information. How does this work?

Every 45 minutes, the tool I’ve created (PHP, JS [Moment, Chartjs], and some shell scripts) scrapes the seeder and leecher count from The Pirate Bay, for many films, including:

  • Trolls World Tour
  • Emma
  • The Invisible Man
  • Birds Of Prey
  • Scoob!

I’m sure there are plenty more early releases scheduled. New films will be added when early releases are made public. Want me to track one? E-mail me and ask.

Limitations

The results cannot be taken as full picture of the pirating landscape. I have no idea how often The Pirate Bay refreshes the seed/leech counts. The scrape only counts files with WebRip and HD included in the filenames, since these are the full HD files ripped from legal streaming services. The data scrape does not go beyond the first page of search results on The Pirate Bay (the list of files becomes worthless after page 1). There are countless other pirate websites where copies of these films will also be shared, so the information can only ever be a guide.

Future

I’d like to add functionality to adjust the date range on the charts. They’re going to fill up pretty quickly, considering new data is captured every 45 minutes.

The data is being saved into .JSON files, which isn’t maintainable in the long-run. I should really start ploughing it into a database.

Another nice addition would be to make the data searchable, so you can search for a particular film and return only the chart for that film.

Written by Thomas

12th May 2020