How the Film Industry Is Letting Piracy Win More From More From Our Brands

The movies might be coming back, but illicit film viewing never left.

Exclusive data provided to VIP+ by piracy-focused research firm Muso suggests that the current film industry landscape is an ideal environment for film theft to flourish.

The most pirated movies in 2023 closely overlap with the year’s blockbuster tallies, as Muso found “Oppenheimer” atop the list (15.4% demand for a stolen version), followed by “Avatar: The Way of Water” (14.6%). Notably, the two films also share the distinction of having the longest theatrical runs on the list — over 100 days each.

Past MUSO data has shown that long theatrical runs can sometimes deter piracy, but in the case of massive releases such as “Oppenheimer” and “Avatar: The Way of Water,” a long wait for official at-home releases combined with a large theatrical window seemingly created the opposite effect.

Although “Avatar” is available to stream on both Disney+ and Max, there was a nearly three-month gap between the film’s digital download and streaming releases. “Oppenheimer,” meanwhile, only hit digital and physical stores last November and isn’t streaming until later this month.

Too short of a window can also prove detrimental, however. “Shrek” spinoff “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” was a sleeper hit due to critical praise and word of mouth, but it only spent 16 days exclusively in theaters, giving pirates a high-quality version of the film just as it was gaining attention. Muso found that a huge initial spike in piracy demand for the film occurred just two days after it was digitally released.

Compare those films’ demand and theater runs with “Barbie,” the highest-grossing film of the year and the other half of “Barbenheimer.” Muso notes “Oppenheimer” had 83% more piracy demand than “Barbie,” which was exclusively in theaters for less than two months and hit the widely used Max during the holiday season, even offering an ASL version of the film. This combination of a shorter theatrical run, a faster streaming debut and extra accessibility likely tamed piracy demand.

The release timeline of “Barbie” also speaks to the correlation between piracy and availability. “John Wick: Chapter 4” is currently only streaming on Starz, “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning” is exclusive to Paramount+, and “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” is now on Amazon Prime Video but initially launched on just Paramount+ and MGM+.

All three of these films are sequels to long-running, popular franchises and yet are only available on streaming services whose subscriber counts pale when compared with the likes of Disney+ or Netflix.

There’s also the issue of films such as “Puss in Boots,” “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and “Spider-Man” being subject to Universal’s 18-month shuffle with Netflix, where the films are passed back and forth between the streaming giant and Universal’s own service Peacock. As the streaming world is more crowded than ever, alienated and confused customers may be more inclined to pirate a film instead of paying for multiple services (especially as prices go up).

All of these factors have led to what Muso describes as “a gap in accessibility or affordability,” which, coupled with a given film’s popularity and cultural impact, is the main driver behind piracy. This issue is nothing new for the film industry, but it has only become more complex in a post-COVID world where standard theatrical windows are long gone and streaming services add, trade and purge content seemingly on a whim.