Wolverine: the Curse of the Pirate Critic

Should movie critics have special rights to pirated films? That's the question that seemed to be at stake after FoxNews.com entertainment columnist Roger Friedman reviewed an illegally leaked copy of a major summer film almost a month before its planned theatrical release.

On April 1, an unfinished but DVD-quality copy of the upcoming 20th Century Fox film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, made the rounds on an array of popular file-sharing networks. Thursday night, Friedman posted a glowing review to FoxNews.com, explaining exactly the method he used to get the film and just how easy it was to obtain. I haven't seen the original column, but according to The Huffington Post, "Friedman marveled at the ease of viewing a pirated movie: 'It took really less than seconds to start playing it all right onto my computer,' he wrote." Legal? Illegal? To Friedman it didn't matter. According to Jeffrey Wells, Friedman "decided to review it, he wrote, because 'the cat is out of the bag and the genie is out of the bottle' and therefore, he felt, the questions of legality were moot because 'there's no turning back.'"

To Fox, however, the legal issue was all that mattered. The studio fired back quickly after his review posted: "This behavior is reprehensible and we condemn this act categorically -- whether the review is good or bad." Word began to circulate that the movie studio took Friedman's piece as an endorsement of piracy. Now, the review has disappeared entirely from the web, and Friedman has been released from his duties at FoxNews.com. 

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Now that Friedman has been fired, the studio may drop the issue, but it also may still choose to pursue legal action. (The studio has already announced that, thanks to digital watermarking built into the leaked DVD, it's on the trail of the leaker and plans to prosecute to the full extent of the law.) The studio's negative response might seem odd at first; critics see movies before their release all the time. And in fact, they do so with the cooperation and encouragement of the studios, who spend enormous amounts of money on publicity departments whose sole purpose is to extract positive reviews from critics, columnists, and bloggers. Friedman wrote a glowing assessment. Particularly given that word of mouth on the film has been mostly negative, shouldn't Fox be pleased? 

Maybe, but even if the studio was happy with the review, its hands are tied. After all, what Friedman did was a crime (never mind that it was a crime also committed by 75,000 others). And more importantly, despite record revenues at the box office in 2007 and 2008, the movie industry is terrified of following the downhill path blazed by the music industry as peer-to-peer downloading became increasingly easy and widespread. That's why the movie industry has spent the past few years waging an aggressive legal and PR battle against piracy.  Their trade group's official position on the matter is that downloading is no different from theft. 

Given that position, they simply can't sanction any review of a pirate leak, no matter how laudatory--particularly after Friedman's piece so blithely and explicitly explained how he got the film. The movie industry needs a show of force in order to back up their statements about the seriousness of piracy. Besides, letting Friedman slide would open the door to other critics reviewing downloaded copies, reviews that might not be nearly so kind. Worsegiving an okay to Friedman's review because he's a critic might seem to offer tacit approval to nearly anyone who downloaded a copy, provided only that the downloader reviewed the film on his or her blog--or perhaps even just Twittered a line about it. Anyone who posted a review online could make a case that he or she is a critic, and therefore entitled to watch. 

If Friedman had declined to state his method for procuring the movie, the studio might have been able to claim that, since the leaked version was already out, they decided to feed him a copy of it. Indeed, this would've been almost plausible given that Friedman is known to have a particularly cozy relationship with the studios. As The New York Observer notes, "In the book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise Independent Film, Peter Biskind quoted former Miramax SVP and co-head of publicity Dennis Higgins as saying "There's no one in the pocket like Roger. It's almost, 'Whaddya want him to write?'" 

But with Friedman going ga-ga for the illegal download technology that the studios have declared their sworn enemy, there was no other way to spin it. And so, as if in some Coen-brothers produced screwball tragedy, everybody came out worse simply by doing their jobs: Friedman was let go, and Fox found itself condemning one of the few positive reviews of one of their biggest releases of the year.