Sicko Pirates

June 24, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

By now, everyone is probably aware that an "unauthorized" copy of Michael Moore's Sicko has appeared on-line. But is this a case of brazen piracy or is it an incident of savvy marketing? If it is the latter, Moore will never admit it (nor will his distributors, the Weinsteins), but it's not as big a stretch as it might seem. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that the version of Sicko floating around on the Internet may in fact be a new form of publicity. If it works, we may start seeing more of this sort of things for smaller movies.

Exhibit A is the quality of the "pirated" copy. This is a pristine version, not some muddy camcorder-captured video or work print. In order for something this good looking to get onto the net, it had to originate from within the distribution circle. It's hard to imagine Moore, a type-A personality, allowing something like this to slip through his grasp. Of course, it could happen - leaks can appear anywhere - but it seems unlikely. It's not unreasonable to believe that the source of the leak was Moore or someone who acted with his permission.

The financial impact will be negligible. The most rabid peer-to-peer downloaders are young men, and they're not in the film's target demographic. The average expected viewer of Sicko probably doesn't have a clue how to find a copy. The latest figures suggest that about 10,000 copies of the movie have been downloaded or seen on YouTube. Let's put that in perspective. Assuming an $7 ticket price and that an average of two people watch each downloaded copy, that means a loss of maybe $140,000. For an average documentary, that would be a big bite, but for something with the box office potential of $25M to $50M, it's less than half a percent of the total gross. That's actually less than might be lost as a result of studio-sponsored promotional screenings – you know, the things that radio stations and newspapers give out free tickets to. (100 nationwide screenings x 250 customers per screening x $7 lost = $175,000) To think that this is hitting Moore or the Weinsteins in the wallet is a mistake. And they know that.

The value of the publicity, however, is incalculable. It gets Moore some sympathy (poor guy, his movie was pirated). It gets news stories. Suddenly, people who had never heard of Sicko know about it. It gets people talking. Combined with the whole Cuba/investigation story, this keeps Moore in the spotlight - a place where he loves to be.

If this is a publicity stunt, it's a smart one. This is a unique way to build word-of-mouth. Moore himself has been subdued when discussing the matter. He has been quoted as saying that this was done by his "enemies" but it doesn't seem to bother him. The important thing is, after all, getting people to see the movie, no matter how they see it. So is Moore a victim here (who is doing his best to turn lemons into lemonade) or is he a master manipulator? I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories, but when I see something like this, it makes me pause and think. After all, isn't Moore known as a sleight-of-hand artist when it comes to documentary subjects?

On a related note, it was recently reported that Eli Roth is blaming piracy for the failure of Hostel Part II. Apparently, a work print of the film made it onto peer-to-peer networks a couple of weeks before the film's release. If one is to believe Roth, everyone interested in the movie had already seen it by the time it opened. This doesn't ring true. I have spoken to three people who downloaded Hostel Part II and all of them went to see it on opening day. That doesn't jibe with Roth's assertion. Odd that a man who has assiduously courted the Internet audience is now turning on them. Could it possibly be that Hostel Part II sank not because of pirates but because the movie wasn't any good?