By: Kim Bond
The internet was particularly noisy early last week; if you hadn’t been lured into the siren’s call of the Love Island series finale, then you were likely drawn into the excited chatter of what might be cinema’s most exciting leak since, well, whatever the last one was.
An extremely (extremely) rough cut of Sony’s long-anticipated Spider-Man: No Way Home had somehow made its way onto the internet and was quickly being replicated and shared at a rate that would make COVID-19 envious. Despite the incredibly low quality of the grainy clip, which had seemingly been recorded on a phone slyly filming a heavily watermarked teaser trailer from a distance, fans squinted and strained hard to see what they could ascertain from just a few minutes of shaky-cam footage.
Marvel and Sony launched joint efforts to Thanos-snap the leak out of existence, but it was too little too late to expunge it from the internet completely, and the cinematic giants were left helpless to stop the inevitable.
But perhaps, execs shouldn’t have been too worried. Leaks are no longer the stuff of studio nightmares – in fact, they’re arguably now a vital part in promoting and building excitement in new cinematic releases, with superhero films benefiting the most.
The recent leak of Spider-Man: No Way Home only further added to the hype machine that has served the film ever since it was announced. The Twitter page for the film announced that the trailer broke the 24-hour global record for the most watched and talked about trailer ever, with the leak having only fostered more excitement from fans about how the mysteries of the multiverse will play out in the latest film.
Of course, Marvel has been working hard to get their fanbase invested in the multiverse for quite some while, with the newest phase of the MCU almost entirely focusing its content around it. An incredibly ambitious project, which could lead to seemingly endless possibilities (and spin-offs), it’s little wonder that Marvel is slightly more guarded about what’s in store.
With that context, it was inevitable that fans collectively lost their minds over the Spider-Man leak due to scarcity of promotional material around the film, scheduled for release in just under four months. The thick shroud of secrecy surrounding the project is so deep that Tom Holland, spoiler extraordinaire, couldn’t even trust himself to say any more than ‘you’re not ready’. Turns out, the trailer wasn’t (quite) either.
Anyway, without any tangible information fans have been getting their film fix through leaks and rumours in a bid to piece together what’s in store for your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. Blogs and forums have shown ‘snapshots’ of former Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield on set. Leaked ‘scripts’ also show all three Spider-Men discussing their respective Uncle Bens and how his loss shaped them. Naturally, none of this information has been confirmed by Marvel Studios.
Leaks, of course, are nothing new. The tabloid press and big-mouthed braggers have always seen that information from movie sets has made its way into public discourse. They were previously considered something so quakingly terrible that a pivotal moment being leaked could see an entire film shelved – such as the 2014 script leak of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (he soon changed his mind and the film was made anyway, to critical acclaim).
But now, it seems leaks have rebranded themselves. No longer outright movie-murderers, leaks can be a vital marketing tool to excite and intrigue audiences – coming in particularly useful for franchises where their fans have insatiable appetites for even the smallest tidbit of content.
“When it comes to huge franchises, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they have little to lose when it comes to leaks,” explains Director of Boxed Out PR (and Marvel fan) Hayley Smith. “Fans will watch the movies regardless.
“Leaks very often create early PR buzz in the media, and on Reddit, and social media, with fans discussing and speculating.
“Film franchises are more about community than anything else and leaks bring all the fans together. The mix of theories, opinions and ideas around a leak add to the experience. It just hypes up upcoming releases even more.”
Comic book films in more recent years have often benefited from leaked material. With films already having an established fanbase thanks to their beloved source material, many people already have a picture in mind about how they want the cinematic release to look. Disappointing cast lists or less-favourable directors can effectively halt a film in its tracks, but a leak can show exactly what fans have to look forward to.
Case in point, the Deadpool movie struggled to get green-lit for years, partially due to Marvel’s previous efforts to bring the character to life in 2009’s much-maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine left audiences cold. Plus, decision-makers debated whether it would be financially viable to have a superhero film aimed purely at an adult audience.
However, opinions reversed hugely when test footage from Deadpool ‘leaked’ online in 2014, seeing that the character’s irreverent and anarchic nature was to be respected entirely. The finished Deadpool gained critical acclaim, broke box-office records for an R-rated movie and spawned a sequel, with another apparently on the way.
“I credit Twitter users, Facebook users, and Instagram users for getting this movie made,” Ryan Reynolds said in an interview in Variety in 2017, adding he was “about 70 per cent sure” he wasn’t responsible for the test footage seeing the light of day.
The DCU has also benefited from leaks. After the ridiculously campy (but still good fun) Batman and Robin, comic book fans weren’t particularly hopeful for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins – until the script leaked onto the internet. Titled Batman: The Intimidation Game, this script quickly saw fans willing to accept that there may just be life yet in a franchise about the brilliantly brooding billionaire superhero.
As Smith explains, these leaks are effectively free PR for studios.
“It allows people to get emotionally invested in the film before it’s released,” she says. “Knowing a plot line sometimes makes these sort of fans want to go and see it more, and creates intrigue and curiosity about the rest of the film and the characters.”
To the slightly more cynical and/or industry-savvy, leaks can also provide the studios with the opportunity to tweak or adjust elements that may not have been so well-received by audiences.
“Social media has provided a great test audience for film companies,” Smith says. “They have free access to millions of movie fans, or fans of a particular genre or franchise such as Marvel, who are honest critics.
“The conversations on social media, and forums give the companies an insight into how the film will be received, without any financial output to them. They effectively gain a free focus group.
“Leaks may even give companies time to do some last-minute editing. It also helps them prepare the cast better in press interviews as they can predict the questions and response.”
Of course, not every film will benefit from this newly evolving leak culture. While larger studios can afford a few breadcrumbs to be scattered around the internet to build anticipation, indie films, or films not tightly tied to a franchise, can be adversely affected – examples include Super 8, with copies of the film littered all over the internet weeks before the release date, and Zombieland – a film that nearly had its sequel cancelled after it became the internet’s most pirated film, with over one million downloads.
But with social media meaning it’s easier than ever to leak, and virtually impossible to remove the leaks entirely, it’s no surprise that film may be forced to embrace leaks as a new marketing strategy.
“Fans are fans,” Smith says. “They’re going to see the movie regardless of the leak, as studios have done such a good job in making sure people are so emotionally invested in them.”