Why renters and pirates watch such different movies
I'm just as obsessed with lists as everyone else, so it caught my eye the other day when Time put two lists up against each other--the most rented movies at Netflix vs. the most illegally downloaded movies from TorrentFreak. The comparison was eye-catching, since if you just compiled the top five entries from each list, as Time did, there was no overlap at all.
Netflix's most rented movies of all time was led by "The Blind Side," with "Crash" at No. 2, "The Bucket List" at No. 3, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" at No. 4 and "The Hurt Locker" at No. 5
TorrentFreak's most pirated films list was led by (no surprise here) "Avatar," followed by "The Dark Knight," "Transformers," "Inception" and "The Hangover." So what does it tell us?
Well, first off, it reminds us that while the MPAA regularly works itself up into a lather about how piracy is undoing the very foundations of the movie biz, that the most pirated movies of all time made tons of moola at the box office, raising the very real possibility that a lot of kids who watch pirated movies also go see them in a theater. But I digress.
Time's theory about why the two lists look so different was simple: Dudes really like to steal movies; their moms like to rent them. But it's actually a little more complicated than that. I'd argue that the lists demonstrate that TorrentFreak customers are early adopters while Netflix subscribers are late adopters. Being largely young, Torrent fans go for the eye candy movies that have the biggest buzz of the moment while the Netflix crowd, which skews older, prefers movies that have a more cerebral sort of buzz, the prestige of critical cachet.
In fact, four of the top 5 Netflix films were Oscar best picture nominees. And the broader Netflix list includes a host of Oscar best picture winners, including "The Departed" (No. 6), "No Country for Old Men" (No.10) and "Slumdog Millionaire" (No. 15). If you go deeper into Torrent's top 10, you find even more movies of the moment--such non-critical favorites as "Kick-Ass (No. 7) and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (No. 10).
This theory passed muster with a studio executive who specializes in the home video end of the business. He said that if Netflix were to make available a list of the most rented movies of this past year, the list would be even more heavily tilted toward family titles. From his perspective, Netflix has gone from being a home for die-hard movie fans to a family-centric subscription service. Or as the executive put it: "People have discovered that Netflix is the world's greatest baby-sitter for their kids."
Torrent fans are much more likely to watch new movies, especially the big studio titles that are propelled by a tsunami of TV and Web marketing. Piracy, almost by definition, skews toward the movies of the moment, since piracy is largely an impulse activity. The act of renting, especially at Netflix, is more of an archival pursuit, which is why a film like "Crash," despite being released in 2005, can still be near the top of the most-rented film list.
And then there's "The Departed" and "Inception," which turn up on both top 10 lists. I guess it just goes to show that sometimes, a movie of the moment can be a movie for the ages too.
Photo: Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from "Inception." Credit: Warner Bros. Films