If it wasn’t for the date, many would have considered it a joke. Then Ain’t It Cool News stepped up and warned readers that they would not be accepting any reviews of it. Soon, the Facebooker and Twitterati were ga-ga over the news. Indeed, it seems that FOX’s first installment in a long rumored X-Men prequel cycle (including looks back at Magneto and others) was leaked to the ‘Net in workprint form. That’s right - X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is making it’s way across illegal torrent and P2P sites all over the world wide web, and fans and fussbudgets alike are worried about the consequences (FOX has subsequently gone into full “cease and desist” mode). Again, it being 1 April when the story broke, this could all be a massive fraud. Others have likened it to the early leaks of Hostel 2, Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake, and the foreign market release mess-up that saw Spider-Man 3 hit computers before the big screen.
But the myth turns out to be true. Currently, if you are want to do so, you can locate a copy of the full one hour and forty-six minute movie, complete with FOX logo at the beginning and DVD quality sound and image. The only thing missing? Lots and lots of completed F/X shots (the studio also argues that this is far from the “final” cut). For those who have downloaded it and perused the overall effort, the verdict seems pretty unanimous - Gavin Hood has done a decent job and fans can feel confident in the film. Even with the lacking CG and visual polish, there’s a lot to like about this action-packed prequel. So the question becomes - why all the handwringing. Is FOX literally sweating over the possibility that people won’t turn up in four weeks, satisfied that they have seen an advanced, though incomplete, version of one of 2009’s premiere popcorn titles?
The answer, obviously, is yes…and no. Assuming for the moment that this was not an inside job (or a completely controlled bit of pre-publicity), any studio would be remiss to not take such a leak seriously. The downsides far outweigh any buzz-based up. No matter how good or great the final version is, viewers who’ve taken the time to download the advance will already have an opinion. They will then place such judgment all over the web for the world to see. They will debate the merits and condemn the creative misfires - and all of this will be done without the studio having a single thing to say about it. Even if the advance word is all good, stealing one’s thunder is never beneficial for the all powerful, all dependent hype machine.
Companies like FOX pay multi-millions to marketing pros who plan out a film’s release pattern many, many months in advance. Everything from standard advertising to new, novel viral campaigns are carefully controlled, purposefully plotted, closely monitored, and immediately manipulated should they fail to fulfill their money-making mandate. Even seemingly innocent facets like press screenings and junket tours are offered (or refused) in order to guarantee a certain level - and demeanor - of exposure. Studios rarely, if ever, let the movie do the talking. Film criticism used to be controlled by an Establishment cabal committed to setting the artistic agenda. Nowadays, anyone with a laptop and a vague idea of noun-verb agreement are making such rash determinations. And no suit has survived based on aesthetic merits alone.
So the advanced release of any movie without pre-arranged studio consent is a reason to be concerned. Arguments can be made that someone with a less than honorable motive decided to leak the material to make those behind the scenes look bad. Others have suggested that FOX is so happy with what’s been done with this floundering movie monopoly that they, themselves, have concocted a complex April Fool’s Day prank. Whatever the reason, it’s a risk to let people see anything that’s not 100% complete, especially when there’s multimillions and Summer movie bragging rights at stake. The dispute will always turn on whether the last minute changes being made will affect the ultimate adaptation for better or worse. And then there’s the reality that, if part of FOX’s plan, we’ve all been duped into publicizing something that, as of right now, is really not ready to be seen.
Studios do court advanced word, especially in this age of instant information access. Greg Mottola’s latest, the brilliant ‘80s coming of age comedy Adventureland, has been making the rounds since Sundance, It even screened some three weeks ago for members of the press here in Tampa. PR companies also inundate journalists with screeners, sometimes before the film even has a distribution deal. Harry Knowles and his insider cronies often get films months before they hit theaters. It’s the main reason audiences line up for lottery entries in the annual Butt-Numb-a-Thon and his filmmaker fueled festivals (as in the Grindhouse celebration sponsored by Quentin Tarantino). So companies definitely feel there is a benefit in getting some early fan input. In addition, online script reviews often get producers to rethink endings or possible plot twists.
Of course, the biggest question yet to be answered is whether or not the leak of Wolverine will affect the all important bottom line. Certainly, some who take the time to locate a possible pirate site and then screen the unfinished footage will probably not venture out to the Multiplex, no matter how successful they think the effort is. Others, prepared to rip this revamp apart for no other reason than their ability to do so will uncork their bile in blogs, messageboards, and comment sections everywhere. They won’t be lining up come 1 May either. Purists will probably wait. True cinephiles will argue director’s vision and “the theatrical experience” and avoid anything other than opening day attendance.
In fact, the only people probably not affected by the leak will be those for whom the movies are a casual, Friday/Saturday night slice of entertainment. The next time you take in a major motion picture, look around you. Can you honestly say that the vast majority of the people in the crowd would be aware of, let alone swayed one way or the other, by a movie leaking online? Oh course, if the movie is bad, word of mouth this early will ruin its chances at some kind of universal acceptance - and even the uninformed will listen. But for the most part, they are out for a good time with friends, and no fanboy geek kvetching is going to keep them from hitting their favorite Cineplex.
As the situation plays out over the next couple of weeks, it will be interesting to see where the final assessment falls. Will FOX be happy for the initial positive conclusions, or will a month of hype both good and bad bedevil Wolverine‘s chances at cinematic supremacy? It has always been a risky proposition, considering the bad taste Brett Ratner left in everyone’s mouth after Part Three. As for now, at least one of the questions about Summer 2009 has been answered - studios still shiver when their almighty dollars are threatened. Planned or not, this leak could turn into a deluge before to long. Whether or not it drowns this film’s chances remains to be seen.