Vigilance increases in 'Wolverine' wake

Studios, vendors step up anti-piracy efforts

As studios put the final touches on key warm-weather releases, the leak of Fox's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" to the Web is turning up the heat on industry anti-piracy efforts.

It's been two weeks since an unfinished work print of the Fox pic began appearing on file-sharing sites. While FBI investigators continue to probe for the source of the leak, studios and the outside vendors that handle prerelease footage are ramping up efforts to make sure other films aren't next.

"There is a great sense of concern when something like this occurs," said Darcy Antonellis, president of technical operations at Warner Bros. and a key figure in the studio's anti-piracy efforts. "We constantly have to review and renew our practices to minimize this risk."

Antonellis said her stomach dropped when she first heard about the leak while at the Sho¬West trade show in Las Vegas.

"Wolverine" has since become the talk of the anti-piracy community because it is perhaps the most high-profile film to make its way onto torrent sites a full month before its scheduled release. The superhero prequel has been extensively viewed, reviewed and dissected on the Internet, and pirated DVDs are being sold worldwide.

Fox remains mum on whether it has changed its security procedures in the wake of the leak. Other studios said few new protocols are in the works but that their vigilance in enforcing existing safeguards has been increased.

"It's a wake-up call and a motivation to renew our efforts, but I don't know that we've done anything specifically in response," said Maren Christensen, executive vp and general counsel at Universal Studios. "We did an internal audit and tightened security in all areas a year ago, and as a matter of course we monitor to be sure that the new procedures are being followed."

Universal and Warner Bros. maintain 20-person anti-piracy teams, along with about 10 Internet specialists that the studios share. Much like its marketing division, Warners creates anti-piracy "campaigns" for each movie, with higher-risk titles garnering more attention. The studio tightened its grip on how footage was handled in advance of last summer's "The Dark Knight," and it plans to do the same with summer tentpoles "Terminator Salvation" and "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."

The studios regularly audit vendors like postproduction houses and ad agencies to make sure they are complying with requirements such as keeping footage locked up, signing DVDs in and out and keeping tabs on who is handling especially anticipated films.

The heightened sensitivity is being felt across the creative community.

Nicky Weinstock, head of development at Apatow Prods., which is readying the summer releases "Year One" for Sony and "Funny People" for Universal, said the studios are paying a lot closer attention to how postproduction houses are handling prerelease footage.

"They're saying, 'If you or Judd have a problem with this, you have to call Jesus Christ, because this is coming from the top,'" Weinstock said.

Studios are taking a long look at such details as who within vendor companies is handling footage and even who is opening the mail.

"A number of vendors have actually reached out to us," Antonellis said. "They're saying, 'We understand what's happened, here's what we're doing to prevent it from happening again.' They understand there is a significant risk of liability."

Studio contracts with outside vendors typically contain language imposing draconian penalties if footage is not protected. So, vendors are equally invested in preventing leaks.

"A leak can mean the difference between staying viable or not," an insider said. "Word gets around town pretty fast."

Said Warren Stein, COO of leading postproduction house Deluxe: "We regularly work with the MPAA, FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in conjunction with our studio customers to enforce their intellectual property rights."

While the impact of the "Wolverine" leak on its eventual boxoffice take might never be known, initial tracking for the May 1 release has been high, especially among the young men who represent a large chunk of visitors to file-sharing Web sites.

Performance has been mixed for other summer tentpoles that leaked to file-sharing sites before their release. Disney's "Ratatouille" appeared online a week before its June 2007 release and nonetheless became a big hit. In June 2003, an incomplete version of Universal's "Hulk" leaked two weeks before its release, and the film underperformed.

An FBI investigation into the "Hulk" leak discovered that an employee of a New York ad agency working on the film had given a rough print to a friend who uploaded it to the Web. The man, Kerry Gonzalez, pled guilty to criminal copyright infringement and was sentenced to six months house arrest.

In February, a 28-year-old employee of a company hired by Paramount to make a copy of "The Love Guru" for NBC's "Tonight Show" was arrested and jailed on charges that he made his own version and gave it to someone who uploaded it to the Web a day before the film's release. The man, Jack Yates, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and is in jail awaiting sentencing.

Also in February, two men were indicted by federal grand jury for uploading screener copies of "Slumdog Millionaire," "Australia" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" to file-sharing sites. They await trial.