In this article, we explore the relationship between the Oscars and digital piracy, and analyse some of the trends observed with previous winners and extrapolate those trends for the current nominees for 2023.
Piracy: 'the largest VoD platform in the world'
In many ways, piracy audience mimic many of the behaviours seen in non-piracy audiences and piracy demand is driven by many of the factors that drive audiences into cinemas. However, piracy in itself is different and when viewed as a platform provides a unique set of conditions. Unlike the legal entertainment ecosystem, all titles are available, and for free. As a consequence piracy data enables a truer picture of demand, one that is not skewed by platform exclusivity, bias or geographical restrictions.
Digital film piracy data shows you what people actually want to watch and Oscar-nominated films are no exception.
What drives film piracy?
Film piracy demand is driven by exactly the same factors that contribute to the popularity of films in general. Key factors like marketing and advertising help create buzz and awareness for a film title. A film's reviews and ratings from both critics and audiences drive demand. Another key factor is the timing of the release, whether a film is released during a holiday season or when there is less competition at the box office. How long the theatrical window is and which home digital platform it’s released on.
The reputation and track record of the director, producer and actors are also pivotal in a film's popularity and success. The genre of the film and the target demographic play a big role. A family-friendly animated film will have a different target demographic than a horror film or a romantic comedy, so the marketing approach and distribution will be different. Finally, a high-budget film with a big-name cast will have more resources for marketing and promotion than a low-budget indie film.
All these inputs work together in a complex and dynamic way, and it's not easy to predict which films will be hits, but understanding these factors can give a better view of what drives a film's popularity.
This is as true with piracy audiences as it is with cinema-goers and we can see this clearly when we look at the three previous winners of Best Picture at the Oscars: Parasite, Nomadland and Coda.
The Academy Awards are widely considered to be the most prestigious awards in the film industry. Winning an Oscar can greatly boost the success and reputation of a film and its creators, and they are a major marketing tool, as nominations and wins can lead to increased visibility and box office success for the nominated films.
The winner of Best Picture at the Oscars in 2020 was Parasite. Released in 2019 Parasite won four Oscars on Feb 9th 2020, including Best Picture, becoming the first non-English language film to win the award. Director Bong Joon-ho also won the award for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film.
Piracy trends for Oscar nominated titles
Parasite had its first theatrical release at the Cannes Film Festival on May 21st 2019 and was released theatrically in South Korea on 30th May 2019. What followed was a slow global release schedule with the USA and Canada having a theatrical release in October 2019 and the UK having a theatrical release on Feb 7th 2020, a few days before the Oscar awards on Feb 9th.
MUSO data points to a relatively low level of demand for the title with piracy audiences up until November of 2019 when it started to trend upwards as the chatter of its potential nomination began to surface in the media.
Piracy demand for Parasite across illegal streaming and torrent sites from July 2019 to June 2020
Piracy demand remained comparatively low for Parasite until it was nominated for an Oscar in January 2020 and the day after it won best picture, piracy demand. exploded. Only 3.87m downloads and streams happened from its initial release to the end of December 2019 with over 7.9m downloads and streams happening in January and February 2020 alone. The initial conclusion was that the Oscars win caused an increase in demand that was also reflected in piracy audience demand.
However, this was not the whole story.
Piracy demand for Parasite across illegal streaming and torrent sites January and February 2020
When we compare the piracy demand of Parasite to Nomadland and Coda, we see a very different picture.
Whilst there is a clear bump-up around the Oscars for each title, this has not translated into overall demand for each of these winners. Parasite is significantly more popular and has more than 5 times the demand of Nomadland and more than 10 times the demand of Coda.
Piracy demand for the 3 best picture winners (2020,2021 and 2022) across illegal streaming and torrent sites from January 2019 to January 2023
As discussed earlier, there are a variety of factors that make something a mainstream hit and while both Nomadland and Coda were huge critical successes neither film received the same level of piracy demand or indeed box-office success as Parasite.
Nomadland was well-received by critics and holds a 96% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics praising the performances of the cast, particularly Frances McDormand, and the film's depiction of the nomadic lifestyle.
Despite winning Best Picture and numerous other awards the film achieved limited box-office success, with reported box-office revenues of $39.5 million versus $263.1m reported box-office revenue for Parasite. It is certainly true that Nomadland had a disrupted theatrical window due to Covid-19. It was initially set to have a wide theatrical release in 2020 but instead had a simultaneous release in cinemas and streaming platforms on Feb 19 2021 ahead of the Oscar awards which were held on April 26th 2021.
Piracy demand for Nomadland across illegal streaming and torrent sites from July 2020 to November 2023
While there is a clear increase in demand for Nomadland after its Oscar nomination and a boost for the few months following, the levels of global piracy would indicate that the title, while critically acclaimed, resonated far less with wider audiences than Parasite which captured more attention from film audiences with its unique and compelling storyline, masterful direction and exceptional performances.
The winner of the best picture in 2022 was the critically acclaimed CODA (which stands for Child of Deaf Adults). On Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a 94% critics rating, with many praising the emotional depth and the performances of the cast, particularly Emilia Jones.
Demand from piracy audiences however was limited and despite the small boost in demand around the awards in March of 2022, CODA had less than half the piracy of Nomadland. The film was released in theatres and through Apple TV+ streaming service in selected countries on August 13, 2021, and only achieved reported box office revenue of $2m dollars.
So what does this mean for the Oscars in 2023?
The nominations for the 95th Academy Awards seem to have moved back towards blockbusters. For the first time ever, there are two sequels included in the nominations; Top Gun and Avatar. Mixed in with these titles are smaller-budget hits and critically regarded art-house movies. It certainly looks like a change in strategy and as you might imagine piracy demand for each of the nominations reveals a varied picture.
Top Gun: Maverick 2022 has all the right ingredients for being a huge film with piracy audiences: a big budget, big stars, a popular franchise and so it’s no surprise that by sheer volume, it is the most popular film with a piracy share of 49.5% amongst the ten nominated titles when viewed across the whole of the year.
Avatar: The Way Of Water 2022 has also seen considerable piracy demand since the middle of December and was by far the most popular film title in MUSO’s December data, suggesting that overall demand for this title will surpass Top Gun: Maverick 2022 given the success of the franchise.
Piracy demand for the nominees of the Best Picture Award 2023
However, is it Everything Everywhere All At Once that seems to show all the signs of following a similar trend to Parasite and for that reason, it is MUSO's prediction for the best picture winner in 2023.
Like Parasite, Everything Everywhere All at Once had a fairly fragmented release. It had its world premiere at the South by Southwest film festival on March 11, 2022, various one- night only viewings in I-Max cinemas and then a wider USA theatrical release in April. The film was released in the UK in May 2022 and on digital streaming platforms on June 7th followed by a re-release in US cinemas at the end of July.
MUSO measured significant streams and downloads for the title in May 2022 alone. The piracy demand was high throughout the summer and has increased further into December ahead of its Oscar nomination.
Piracy demand for everything Everywhere All At Once March 2022 to Jan 2023
The film has been well received by critics and holds a 95% critics’ approval rating and an 89% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Parasite holds a 99% critics’ approval rating and a 90% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
In many ways Parasite was a trailblazer in the increasing global popularity of non-English language titles. Where Parasite's significant piracy spike happened the day after the Oscars and subsequent word-of-mouth growth, Everything Everywhere All at Once had an almost identical level of piracy demand in May 2022 ahead of its home digital release and this will now undoubtedly increase further in the coming months around the awards.
Furthermore 19% of all piracy for Everything Everywhere All at Once is from the USA whereas only 5.9% of the piracy for Parasite hailed from the US, perhaps indicating a continued trend towards non-English titles becoming more mainstream and in demand with western audiences.
Piracy demand for the Parasite and Everywhere All At Once
This trend is even more marked with TV content. In MUSO’s TV piracy data across 2022 Chainsaw Man S1, an Anime television series was the second most popular TV title in the United States across the whole of 2022 and when looking at Q4 2022 in isolation, Chainsaw Man was the most popular title in the US and the second most popular title globally. And six out of the top ten TV titles with US piracy audiences in 2022 were Japanese or South Korean productions.
Piracy audience demand data is, in many ways, a reflection of general popularity. Big-budget, big blockbuster movies with A-List actors will usually have significantly high piracy demand. There is no real surprise that Top Gun, Avatar or Black Adam have eye-watering levels of piracy.
One of the key benefits of piracy data is that it reveals the hidden trends where other data sources do not present a clear or unbiased view. Piracy data is a powerful bell weather for trend analysis of cultural demand and popularity because it enables a view of audience demand that is not seen through other data sources. It is ahead of the curve and it shows a truer demand for what people want to watch where cost or access or geographical locations are not barriers to consumption.
The Oscars are unrivalled in driving interest and highlighting incredible movies, which may have otherwise gone under the radar without the exposure, Parasite being a prime example.
But it is the power of the audience that determines the mass appeal and ultimate success of those titles. Piracy data like box-office data is a considerable measure of that success.