For those of you who missed it, last week the biggest digital leak in movie history occurred on the web. A rough cut of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine found its way into the torrent stream and was downloaded countless times, though experts put it in the low hundreds of thousands. The FBI has opened an investigation to stem the flow of downloads and track down the leak’s origin. There are overarching implications into what this means for both filmmakers and critics alike. Let’s examine.
First off, I would like to mention that 20th Century Fox not only has the right but the responsibility to seek out and prosecute whoever dropped the ball on this one. It may seem like fun and games from our desk-chairs given how easy and socially acceptable it has become to download media, but this is no laughing matter. Leaks like this undermine the integrity of all filmmakers and break down whatever mystique cinema still has over audiences. Furthermore, this event is going to make the already paranoid studios more wary to work with outside companies for fear of leaks, which potentially means less work for such third parties.
That being said, the film did leak onto the internet, and the legal waters of digital piracy remain just as murky as they were when Metallica took on Napster almost a decade ago. Odds are no charges will ever be brought against downloaders of the poisonous file. Fox really just wants to find who leaked it and put him or her behind bars. So if the film is out there, what do we do with it?
The short answer, from a film critics’ perspective, is nothing. As a community, we have a responsibility to filmmakers and audiences alike. The mututal respect between makers and critic relies on intentionality. A finished product is open to discussion, but a work in progress is indefensible. The sheer technical handicap of watching a film on your computer as opposed to in its intended format on the big screen.
The longer answer is different. This leak, whether you have seen it or not (I have not), is now part of the film. Those who didn’t download it can get preliminary reviews from amateur critics, and the news media has made certain that most of us know of the file’s existence. It is inescapable; the leak is now intertwined with the film’s actual release. When The Darjeeling Limited was released shortly after Owen Wilson made an attempt at suicide, few critics steered clear of drawing the parallel between that event and his character’s similar attempts in the film. Point being: there are events surrounding every film that add or detract from the film itself, and this is no exception.
I wouldn’t blame a diligent critic for at least considering a look at the Wolverine workprint. After all, it offers raw insight into the filmmakers process that few are privy to. If this were an unearthed copy of, say, Rosemary’s Baby, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to pick it apart? In one sense, whatever changes there may be between now and the film’s release may serve to enrich the discussion of the film. Perhaps the public input will be taken into account for some changes, creating an interactive editing environment. Given the recent explosion of web interactivity, from Twitter to Facebook to Ustream, audience members have the means and the desire to participate in the movie making process. This is especially true in the case of superhero adaptations, where the original fan base is incredibly vociferous regarding accuracy and integrity.
But this isn’t R__osemary’s Baby. This is unfinished, unpolished, unreleased material. Wolverine isn’t being given the fair chance to succeed or fail on its own. Filmmakers need to be assured that their work is safe until released to the public. The film ecosystem is based around every filmmaker’s deliberateness to make the film he or she intends. When we can’t trust that, then there is nothing to critique, nothing to grab hold of and consider academically. Instead, there are just shots and scenes put together; not a complete work.
It is unpopular to be on the side of a multinational corporation, least of all one whose history is checkered with questionable ethics, but I must agree that a leak of this stature is completely unacceptable. Fox has its business concerns, but for me this is an artistic issue. This has less to do with piracy in general and more to do with the sanctity of the post process. (I would like to point out that I am not weighing in on the downloading or distribution of already released material) It is surprising that it has taken this long for this to happen, yet here we are. the best thing for us to keep on doing what we do. There are enough finished films in the pipe to keep us all busy, until the next one leaks.