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Will 'Wolverine' benefit from (Bit)Torrent of publicity?

Hollywood has condemned whoever it was who leaked an uncompleted copy of "Wolverine" to the Web. On the eve of the film's debut, the X-Men movie seems to be doing just fine.

Charting number of times Wolverine was illegally downloaded on file-sharing sites. BigChampagne

Outfitted with a skeleton forged from a super alloy, the comic book hero Wolverine is supposed to be indestructible.

After a raw version of the movie "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" leaked to the Web last month, 20th Century Fox is hoping the action pic, which debuts Friday, is nearly as durable.

Hollywood has been in a near frenzy since April 1, when someone--who has yet to be identified--leaked a copy of "Wolverine" to the Web. The fear was that the unauthorized copy would hurt ticket sales. "Wolverine" cost more than $100 million to make.

Some people won't bother to spend money at the theater when they can watch it for free online, goes one argument. Since it hit the Internet, the pirated copy has been downloaded more than 4.1 million times, according to BigChampagne, which does market research that focuses on file-sharing networks.

Another of Hollywood's concerns is that people who download work prints of movies, as was the case with "Wolverine," are seeing incomplete versions. The studios say they're worried some people will be turned off by the unfinished works and that they'll spread word that the movie is a stinker. So far, none of that appears to have happened.

Fandango, the online movie-ticketing services, is reporting hundreds of sold out shows across the country (not all of them sold through Fandango). The Los Angeles Times wrote Friday the film appears headed "toward a solid but not spectacular opening around $85 million."

20th Century Fox

It's still too early to tell how "Wolverine" will fare in the long run, but the film's early success could be seen as evidence of a claim many in the torrent community make: that a film appearance on the Web can actually help create anticipation around a movie. Certainly, no one so far has attempted to blame an Internet leak for a film that bombed.

"Torrents won't have one iota of impact on the financial results of the film," said Justin Bunnell, founder of TorrentSpy, a formerly popular BitTorrent search engine that shut down after being sued by the film industry. "The torrenting only increased awareness of the film."

Who can argue that the controversy surrounding the leak didn't generate scores of headlines about Wolverine?

"The news cycle was strong (as a result of the leak)," said Eric Garland, BigChampagne's CEO. "This is a big tent-pole movie that would have received a lot of publicity anyway, but it saw a lot of extra headlines and the word-of-mouth wasn't bad. I don't think this movie was badly hurt by this leak."

Bunnell argues that previous films or TV shows that were shared illegally online, such as the "The Hulk" or "Sicko" succeeded or failed in theaters based on their quality.

"The Hulk" (the version starring Eric Bana) leaked to the Web in 2003, shortly before the theatrical release. After a respectable opening weekend, sales went into a nosedive and the movie is considered a financial disappointment. But the film also suffered from critical reviews, so its dismal performance can't be blamed on the leak. (Critics are mixed about "Wolverine.") "Sicko," director Michael Moore's documentary on the health care industry, appeared on the Web a week before being screened in theaters and fared well, relative to other documentaries, at the box office.

"It can be catastrophic to any media company if advanced word is poor," Garland said. "Ultimately, a bad product will always lose out. What's changed is that you always used to get a chance to get that first wave of paying customers through the door. You lose that group if word gets out that the movie isn't any good."

What it comes down to is that most people prefer watching a film on a huge theater screen than watching on a PC or TV, says Bunnell.

"Watching in a theater is a very empowering experience," Bunnell said. "You're watching with your friends, eating popcorn, seeing all the action up close. Even full screen on a computer can't produce that... I think the theater is a great experience and much more fun than watching alone on a computer screen."