It Turns Out Piracy Is Cannibalizing Ticket Sales After All

Big hits could be even bigger.


Movie piracy soared in 2015, but when online swashbucklers are largely streaming the same movies that top the box office, you could easily argue that the theft didn’t matter. But a study released Wednesday by Carnegie Mellon University says that Furious 7 might have outdone even its $1.5 billion worldwide gross if people hadn’t watched Paul Walker’s swan song online for free.

The study found that films from 2006 and 2008 could have made 15 percent more in theaters if it weren’t for piracy, while films from 2011 and 2013 could have made an extra 14 percent. While piracy does boost a film’s profile through word of mouth, any box office gains it would get from the free exposure are cannibalized online.

The study was conducted by Michael D. Smith, co-founder of the university’s Initiative for Digital Entertainment Analytics, which, if you’re conspiracy-minded, was launched in 2012 with funding from the MPAA. It also refutes 2012 research from Wellesley College and the University of Minnesota that studied box office numbers before and after BitTorrent came online in 2003 and found that piracy did not hurt returns. That study also found, however, that foreign markets — audiences increasingly important to the bottom line — were leached by piracy.

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