'Fast Five' And 'The Hangover: Part II' Among Year's Most-Pirated Movies

Apparently, it was a bountiful year to be a pirate.

Numbers prepared by piracy-news hub TorrentFreak.com list Spring/Summer 2011 blockbusters "Fast Five," "The Hangover Part II" and "Thor" atop the year's most-pirated films. Despite the dubious distinction, it doesn't appear the three films' popularity among torrent users was exactly what anyone could call a kill-shot to studios, if box-office returns suggest anything.

Despite being downloaded on BitTorrent roughly 9 million times in under 12 months, the Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson-led "Fast Five" still raked $626 million worldwide. "The Hangover Part II" came in a close second 8.84 million illegal views, but still made $581 million. Marvel Studios' "Thor" was illegally downloaded 8.83 million times and still drew $449 million. The tally reportedly counted all possible formats, including handheld-camera bootlegs, as tracked by "thousands of BitTorrent trackers."

There are some telling messages here.

As the Washington Post speculates, it's entirely possible that a few smaller films like "The King's Speech" (6.25 million downloads) and "127 Hours" (6.91 million downloads) outpaced the illegal trafficking of bigger releases like "Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" or "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon" - neither of which ranked among the TorrentFreak top-10 - because both received Academy Award nominations despite being shown on very few screens. As compared by Box Office Mojo, "127 Hours" played in 916 theaters compared with "Fast Five" playing in 3,793.

But what else does it say about audiences?

For one small thing, it says that a few movies still arrive every year that are just best seen on the big screen - nothing else really compares. That's what will still have throngs flocking into theaters for the larger-than-life 3D and IMAX spectacles of bombastic thrillers like any "Transformers" or "Pirates Of The Caribbean" installment. By now, those fans know just what a thrill ride they can expect, and they know that precious few are the realistic home-theater setups that could really duplicate it. And that experience that's so hard to duplicate in a living room or in front of a computer screen's glow is clearly worth many theater-goers' $10-plus price of admission.

Still, the high torrent counts for "Thor" and "Fast Five" show that some movies will have just as many people feeling like just staying home as will bolt to see it in theaters, regardless of the formats made available. After all, "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2" came in Number 10 on the TorrentFreak list with 6.03 million downloads, but still earned $1.33 billion worldwide. 

Here's what's not so surprising: setting aside the top three pirated movies, "Harry Potter" and the other two aforementioned limited-release Oscar nominees, notice which movies fill out the remaining top-10 slots: "Rango," "Sucker Punch," "Source Code" and "I Am Number Four." None of the above made even $250 million, though "Rango" came closest with $245 million.

Even considering the movies that were oft pirated but still made huge bank, here's the most telling moral of the story: with the economy still floundering people having ever less and less disposable income, consumers are still becoming not just ever more picky about how they spend their entertainment dollars - they're also becoming more resourceful. Remember not long ago, when Nielsen reported for the first time in the media research group's existence that TV set ownership was declining? Well, consider this further proof - albeit proof underscored with serious legal ramifications - that the internet has become the guiding-light savior of entertainment for tight-budgeted consumers, and adaptation is clearly needed. 

Not every movie will be as fortunate as "The Hangover Part II," "Thor" or "Fast Five" in boasting unique theatrical experiences that no bootleg fully replicates. Those movies gave theater-going audiences something well worth the cost of admission. Not every movie does, but setting aside extra-costing gimmicks like 3D and IMAX, tickets cost the same to see something like "Fast Five" as to see something like "Rango." 

That cost can specifically be described as "entirely too-damn-much."

When it comes to movies, we're still paying far more all the time, but getting wise that we're not always getting better movies for our dollars. People don't want to sacrifice their two hour or so escapes from their daily troubles, but as the cost of admission continues pricing them right out of theaters and even cable TV, they start becoming resourceful.

We're talking resourceful in droves.

It's reaching the point wherein fans may soon start forcing the entertainment industries' hands, much as Shawn Fanning and Napster once forced the RIAA's and led to the ultimately successful compromise industry of legitimate, paid downloading when the recording industry was forced to accept something instead of the non-profit of continued piracy, and change the way it did business to meet consumers' demands. 

Maybe this will force the film industry's hands similarly and lead to a dialogue between industry executives and theater ownership to figure out a way ticket prices can be made manageable again. But in the meantime, fans may not like where the MPAA has taken the fight.

Enter the House's Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate's Protect Intellectual Property Act.

SOPA - more formally known as House Bill 3261 - was introduced this past October by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and expands upon previous legislation (i.e., the 2008 version of the Protect IP Act) to increase law enforcement and copyright holders' piracy-fighting powers using means that include barring advertisers and payment facilitators such as PayPal from doing business with alleged infringing sites, barring search engines from linking to them, and requiring service providers to block access.

It's a two-step process: the copyright holder gives ad networks and payment facilitators written notice that a site may be in violation, and the ad networks and payment facilitators are then required by law to pass the notice along to the offending site unless the site provides a counter-statement indicating why it is not in violation. The trouble is, that the impact on linking sites could become so dire as to potentially cripple otherwise legitimate social networks and marketplaces such as YouTube, Etsy, Vimeo, Blip.TV and even Twitter, as described in a briefing by NetCoalition.com

Something will have to give. But what gives could have some serious aftershocks.