The Impact of Illegally Recorded Theatrical Titles

By Chris Tribbey

We hear all the time that BitTorrent downloads of films still in theaters — illegally filmed and uploaded — are the bane of the studios’ existence, and a major contributor to lost box office revenue.

However, the link between illegal downloads and lost ticket sales may be overstated, according to Apas Laboratory, an independent research firm out of Montreal.Apas’s Dr. Marc R. Milot, author of a recent study on the correlation between ticket sales and pirated films, looked at box office and movie rating metrics for movies released during the second half of 2011, specifically the top two most widely released films each week, or 32 films in all. He then tied in film ratings from Rotten Tomatoes and box office data from Box Office Mojo, and download statistics from a BitTorrent site.

His data found that (factoring in the pre-release hype of a film, the post-release consumer metric, and the number of times the film was downloaded) ticket sales and box office revenue are more directly related to the quality of the content (“as defined by its post-release consumer rating and its pre-release hype”), not the number of times a film has been downloaded by pirates.

“The underlying lost sale assumption is that a movie ticket would have been purchased and the movie viewed in theatres had its [illegally recorded] copy not been downloaded for unauthorized private viewing during (or in some cases before) the time of its official release,” Milot wrote. “[However] common sense dictates that it is entirely plausible to accept that individuals downloading movies unlawfully would not have otherwise paid to legitimately consume all of them.”

In short, an illegal download — while still a pain for content creators and owners — doesn’t necessarily equate to a 1:1 lost ticket sale.

Milot stressed that his findings don’t imply that downloads of illegally recorded theatrical films have no impact on the box office. Instead, the study serves “to caution against the use of download statistics in calculations of losses to avoid overestimations.”

“… Many of the [illegally recorded] downloads have a low probability of representing lost ticket sales, particularly the lower rated movies which had an overrepresented number of downloads relative to their actual box office outcomes (which showed lower sales than higher rated movies),” his report reads.

“Overall, the factors shown to contribute directly to the box office success of a movie had no direct bearing on the number of times the same movie was downloaded at [a] BitTorrent website.”

The better pre-release hype and post-release consumer ratings a film had, the better that film did at the box office, regardless of the number of times a pirated version of the film was downloaded, the study found.