For Warner Bros., the mission was to keep "The Dark Knight" from seeing the light of day.
In an era of instantaneous digital copying and widely available high-speed Internet access, the premature and unauthorized release of a movie to the public -- especially a coveted summer blockbuster -- can spell disaster. If the movie's a stinker, the word will travel at the speed of a mouse click, ruining chances of making back money. And if the movie's popular, piracy can rob ticket sales and cut into revenue.
Executives at Warner Bros. knew they didn't have to worry about the first scenario: Buzz had been building for months about late actor Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker and director Christopher Nolan's dark rendition of the Batman legend. And marketing surveys pointed to a record-smashing opening weekend for "The Dark Knight" at the box office.
Instead, Warner Bros. was worried about what would happen if a copy of the movie slipped into public before the theatrical opening, which would result in it competing against pirated DVD copies. The ardent fan-boy appeal of "The Dark Knight" created opportunity and risk in equal measure for the studio.
The Batman sequel's core audience of superhero geeks is the same group of young men who gravitate to online file-sharing communities. Fear that pirated copies would pop up on the Internet during the film's crucial opening weekend prompted Warner to devote six months to an unprecedented anti-piracy strategy, painstakingly locking down the movie as it moved from production to post-production to movie theaters.
Warner created a "chain of custody" to track who had access to the film at any moment. It varied the shipping and delivery methods, staggering the delivery of film reels, so the entire movie wouldn't arrive at multiplexes in one shipment, in order to reduce risk of an entire copy being lost or stolen. It conducted spot checks of hundreds of theaters domestically and abroad, to ensure that illegal camcording wasn't taking place. It even handed out night-vision goggles to exhibitors in Australia, where the film opened two days before its U.S. launch, to scan the audience for the telltale infrared signal of a camcorder.
Warner Bros. executives said the extra vigilance paid off, helping to prevent camcorded copies of the reported $180-million film from reaching Internet file-sharing sites for about 38 hours. Although that doesn't sound like much progress, it was enough time to keep bootleg DVDs off the streets as the film racked up a record-breaking $158.4 million on opening weekend. The movie has now taken in more than $300 million.
The success of an anti-piracy campaign is measured in the number of hours it buys before the digital dam breaks.
"One of the reasons why it's so important to try to protect the first weekend is that it prevents the pirate supply chain from starting," said Darcy Antonellis, president of Warner's distribution and technical operations. "A day or two becomes really, really significant. You've delayed disc manufacturing that then delays distribution, which then delays those discs from ending up on street corners for sale."
Piracy experts say such tight security measures are now commonplace among studios seeking to protect big-budget summer blockbusters.
Studios fear a reprise of the "Hulk" piracy debacle. A rough, early version of Ang Lee's 2003 summer movie made its way to the Internet two weeks before the film's scheduled premiere, provoking negative reactions from the comic-book film's devoted fans, whose opinion carries far more weight in determining the success of this film genre than that of mainstream film critics.
"A lot of people decided not to go near it. Hollywood argued, correctly, that many more people would have gone to see it, had online buzz not been so critical of the movie," said Eric Garland, chief executive of BigChampagne Online Media Measurement, which monitors file-sharing networks and is a consultant to the entertainment industry.
"Hulk" still had an impressive opening, grossing $62 million in its first weekend. But by the second week, mediocre reviews and corrosive word of mouth pushed grosses down 70%. The studios aren't eager to give the audience advance -- and uncontrolled -- viewings of its tent-pole films.
"If the movie's a stiff, and word gets out too early that it's a stiff, it's devastating to the business model," Garland said.
Paul Kocher, president of Cryptography Research Inc., a San Francisco company that develops anti-piracy technology, said that unlike with music, one viewing of a film -- even in blurry, camcorded form -- often is enough.
"With rare exception, once you've seen the movie you're unlikely to watch it a second time," Kocher said. "You don't have the benefit the music guys have, that piracy can help build buzz. For the movie industry, it's purely a destructive force."
Studios use tracking methods to keep tabs on who handles a film and when, and mark the prints sent to theaters. That makes it possible to identify where a pirated copy was recorded, Kocher said.
The thorniest issue, when it comes to anti-piracy measures, is advance screenings. Studios balance the desire to perform the kind of rigorous bag checks that would make airport security blush against the fear of antagonizing critics.
"That's the one where there's the endless debate about what you do," Kocher said.
Big-budget summer popcorn flicks hold powerful lure for Internet bootleggers. Last year's Disney/Pixar Animation Studios animated film "Ratatouille" leaked out five days ahead of its cinematic premiere, and George Lucas' 2005 film, "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith," similarly found its way to file-sharing networks days before it reached the big screen. The illicit Star Wars copy contained time codes indicating it slipped out of post-production. It nonetheless went on to gross $380 million domestically.
Michael Robinson, the Motion Picture Assn. of America's director of North American anti-piracy, said all the studios had improved security at post-production facilities. The trade group, in turn, uses a combination of gumshoe tactics and technology to crack down on piracy after the fact, going so far as to follow suspected pirates into theaters.
"At any given time, there are only a handful of truly professional camcorders out there who are recording," said Robinson, who spent 30 years in law enforcement, including a dozen years as head of the Michigan state police. But all it takes is one good-quality recording to generate thousands of Internet downloads and bootlegged DVDs sold at swap meets.
MPAA investigators used the lure of "The Dark Knight" to catch a suspected bootlegger in the act during a 9:40 a.m. showing in a theater in a southeast suburb of Kansas City, Mo.
A Lee's Summit Police Department spokesman said the MPAA investigators spotted the man in the back row of the theater, trying to cloak his video camera with black tarps as he allegedly made an illicit recording. A subsequent police search of the man's home turned up hundreds of DVDs that are believed to be pirated, the spokesman said. The case has been referred to the FBI.
"This wasn't necessarily one of our most covert operations," Robinson said. The investigators in the theater looked like G-men from central casting, wearing MPAA letters emblazoned on their shirts. "It was kind of brazen on this guy's part. Maybe he thought all the MPAA did was rate the movies."
It's hard to quantify how the broad availability of pirated online copies of films affects box-office receipts. But a study commissioned by the MPAA found that Hollywood's major studios lost $6.1 billion to film theft in 2005.
Warner Bros took no chances with "Dark Knight," a movie that opened in 12 overseas markets before it reached the U.S. It even maintained a swat team of sorts, composed of the piracy and production teams, which remained in constant contact as they continuously scanned the pirate networks throughout the weekend for illicit copies.
"As we have often said, we view piracy as a competitor," Warner distribution chief Antonellis said.
Still, the anti-piracy hurdles are enormous, and in the end success is determined by how long a studio can stave off the inevitable.
The first pirated copy of "The Dark Knight" was available on a top-level pirate site by Friday night, two days after its Australian premiere, said Mark Ishikawa, chief executive of BayTSP Inc., a Los Gatos firm that does online tracking of copyrighted works. By Sunday, it could be downloaded on BitTorrent file-sharing sites or viewed on YouTube, he said.
"Such a widely released film in such high demand, by virtue of its following, significantly increased chat and overall online interest in the title within pirate networks," Antonellis said. "Whenever those factors come together, it makes our challenges from an anti-piracy perspective much harder."