“Wonder Woman 1984” foreshadows Hollywood’s giant piracy problem

Hollywood will need a heroic effort to thwart the rise of piracy.
Hollywood will need a heroic effort to thwart the rise of piracy.
Image: Warner Bros.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Wonder Woman 1984 catapulted the entertainment industry into an era in which big-budget Hollywood films can debut on streaming platforms. But it also signaled a growing problem that will plague studios as they rely more in streaming: internet piracy.

The superhero film, which premiered last month on WarnerMedia’s HBO Max streaming service at the same time it opened in theaters, immediately became a popular target of pirates. It accounted for nearly 10% of all illegal movie or TV downloads the day it was released, according to the piracy tracker TorrentFreak. The blog did not divulge specific statistics, but did say Wonder Woman 1984 has been illegally downloaded “millions” of times via torrent sites. Much of the piracy appears to be coming from the US and India.

WarnerMedia says the film exceeded its expectations for HBO Max viewing and subscriber metrics, tripling the typical daily amount of viewing hours on the platform the day it was released. But even a conservative estimate of a few million illegal opening-weekend downloads of the movie would constitute at least $20 million in lost revenue for the studio—and likely much more in subsequent weeks. (An HBO Max subscription costs $15 per month, while the average movie ticket price in the US is about $9.)

Piracy has long been a serious issue for TV shows, which can be copied and distributed all over the world the instant they debut online. Anti-piracy technology can’t keep up with advancements in pirating tech, while legal measures have proven to be a weak deterrent. Piracy also cuts into film revenue, but it hasn’t been quite as much of a roadblock for big-budget movies, since historically they have played exclusively in theaters for months before a high-quality version could hit the internet for illegal distribution.

But now, as WarnerMedia and other Hollywood studios premiere more and more important tentpole content on streaming services, they could struggle to prevent piracy from running wild and devastating a film’s revenue potential. Without the buttress of a widespread, exclusive theatrical release to accumulate profits before pirates can get their hands on a digital copy of a film, studios become a lot more vulnerable to the financial effects of digital theft. Studios are aware of the problem, but haven’t yet figured out a solution.

Digital piracy is one reason studios will not entirely abandon theaters even as streaming becomes central to their business models. Disney, for instance, will still release the vast majority of its potential blockbusters this year (and likely in subsequent years) in theaters, despite it also needing to populate the Disney+ streaming service with attractive content. Theatrical distribution was already a lucrative component of any Hollywood company’s strategy, and while it faces its own enormous challenges, it will remain one way companies can limit the impact of piracy on their bottom lines.

Disney should know something about piracy: Its Disney+ series, The Mandalorian, was the most-pirated show of 2020, according to TorrentFreak. New services (like Disney+) and niche services (like CBS All Access) are especially exposed to piracy as they try to grow the number of paying subscribers. Netflix, which has nearly reached market saturation in some territories, did not have many titles on the list of most-pirated content—likely because even most would-be pirates have access to a Netflix account.