Why did movie pirates take a pass on ‘Taken’?


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If there were ever a film ripe for the picking, in terms of movie piracy, it would’ve been ‘Taken,’ the Liam Neeson-starring thriller from 20th Century Fox that has become the year’s biggest action hit, rolling up $109 million since its debut on Super Bowl weekend. The movie has shown legs of steel, especially for an action film, opening at $24.7 million and averaging a drop-off of 19% in the four weekends since its release, an amazingly modest number in an era where most action films suffer drops of 50% or more after their initial release.

But the real reason ‘Taken’ should have been a prime target for pirates is that it was released in almost every corner of the globe long before it arrived in America. Produced by Luc Besson, France’s new action impresario, ‘Taken’ was released in a host of countries, including France, China, South Korea and the Netherlands, way, way back in the spring of 2008. It arrived in much of the rest of the world--including Australia, Italy, Russia, Brazil and the United Kingdom--last fall, having done more than $70 million in overseas business. In fact, ‘Taken’ has been out so long that it was available on DVD in many countries before it arrived in theaters in the U.S.


So if piracy is such a dire threat to the movie business, as the Motion Picture Assn. of America is so-o-o-o-o-o-o fond of saying, how could ‘Taken’ have had the world’s healthiest theatrical run in America, if pirated copies were clearly readily available virtually anywhere in the world? It seems to put a big dent in the MPAA’s operating assumptions about piracy. But maybe, just maybe, I’m wrong here. To hear the other side of the story, I called up someone who’s a lot smarter than I am, Fox Co-Chairman Jim Gianopulos, whose studio released ‘Taken’ and has been the industry’s leader in various anti-piracy efforts.

Gianopulos not only practices what he preaches (he assures me that all of the thousands of blues songs on his iPod were downloaded legally) but he had an intriguing explanation for how ‘Taken’ escaped being ravaged by piracy. ‘Here’s the simple way to put it,’ he said, ‘When nobody knows what something is, nobody cares about stealing it. You really only get pirated copies of movies online after you’ve created the film’s value by putting it out into the marketplace.’

So even though ‘Taken’ was a hit in many overseas territories, it was still an unknown quantity in America until Fox ramped up its marketing campaign for the film in the weeks leading up to its Jan. 30 release. ‘You could actually say that this example puts a real focus on our dilemma,’ he continued. ‘The problem only comes when we spend tens of millions of dollars creating a presence and an enticing appeal for the film. That’s when the pirates rush in to fill the void. But until we did the marketing push, the film really didn’t have the recognition here that it had in the rest of the world.’

I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced. That would account for why the movie wasn’t pirated before its opening weekend. But once Fox’s marketing push established the film as a must-see action hit, why didn’t piracy cut into its business during its third and fourth week of release? As I mentioned earlier, the film didn’t do all its business in its opening weekend--it still ranks No. 3 in the midweek box-office charts, which means people who presumably could have stayed home and watched a pirated copy are still flocking to the theaters.

Does anyone else have a theory about what’s happening here? If you have a smart explanation, please share it with us. I think there’s more here than meets the eye.