This article is part of a Fortune Special Report: Business in the Coronavirus Economy—a look at the impact of the pandemic on more than 50 industries.
With strict quarantine and shelter-in-place orders issued in coronavirus-affected areas worldwide, a surge in home entertainment was practically a given. But even as it gets easier (and cheaper) to stream music, television, and movies to your device of choice, video piracy appears to be on the rise. The likely culprit: content-hungry viewers who are stuck at home and bored.
Despite the array of streaming options on offer—Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, and Disney+ among them—Internet search trends reveal an increase in illegal download interest in areas that have been particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Italy, which has recorded about a third of all coronavirus-induced deaths around the globe, Google searches for Netflix are up, according to the search company—as well as searches for local pirate sites. Interest in download services like EuroStreaming and Altadefinizione have spiked since the country’s first cases of coronavirus were confirmed on Jan. 30, according to the file-sharing-focused publication TorrentFreak.
Meanwhile London-based firm Muso, which tracks global incidents of piracy for the entertainment industry, reported a startling 5,609% increase year over year in visits to streaming sites for the 2011 drama Contagion, which film critics have hailed as one of Hollywood’s most accurate portrayals of a pandemic. For about three weeks in January, website visits seeking Contagion increased from 546 to more than 30,000, Muso CEO Andy Chatterley revealed in Forbes. (Homebound viewers’ interest isn’t limited to content about disease outbreaks, mind you, but it’s naturally a popular topic.)
The entertainment industry’s conventional rollout schedule is partly driving piracy. In normal times, a film is released to domestic theaters, international markets, and streaming services in stages. But the coronavirus outbreak forced major film studios to grapple with sudden theater closures in lucrative markets like China, South Korea, and Italy. Hollywood studios soon faced a collection of mid-release films they could no longer debut in additional markets, plus a growing backlog of films that hadn’t yet been released at all. These are prime targets for pirates—popular movies available elsewhere in the world or unreleased and completed films susceptible to leaks.
For example, U.S. films still waiting for release in China, the world’s second-largest box office, include Sonic the Hedgehog, Jojo Rabbit, 1917, Marriage Story, Dolittle, and Little Women. In a Feb. 19 investors call, Imax CEO Richard Gelfond said there was a piracy risk for any Hollywood films that would not see simultaneous theatrical rollouts in the U.S. and China.
“People still watch content,” Chatterley tells Fortune. “If they’re not going to the cinema, inevitably if the title leaks, people will be able to find it online. We’ll see some really significant spikes.”
Even in the U.S., the COVID-19 situation has evolved rapidly. A rapid spike in coronavirus infections this month prompted many theaters around the country that had remained open to close. Studios delayed the release of highly anticipated films like Mulan, the James Bond feature No Time to Die, and F9, the latest in the Fast and Furious franchise. Meanwhile other films, such as Bloodshot, starring Vin Diesel, opted for a digital release ($19.99) in an effort to grant consumers legal access and still turn a profit.
“It doesn’t matter what movie it is, or if there’s a way to get it out before or after, or if it’s theatrical—it’s going to get out there,” says Steve Hawley, an analyst for the industry website Piracy Monitor. “Bloodshot started getting stolen two to three weeks before its release. Someone either penetrated a server or took a copy of the video and shared it with a pirate. It happens to be a popular case in Western-facing countries.”
Hawley adds, “There’s no question that piracy requests have gone up in the last few weeks, and it’s a result of people staying home because of coronavirus. This is more than just anecdotal reporting.”
Film festivals are a common source of leaks, according to Xavier Henry-Rashid, managing director of Film Republic, a London-based film sales agency. With many festivals this year—including South by Southwest, Tribeca, and Cannes—postponed and resorting to digital screenings for juries, the threat of online leaks is higher than usual.
“Festivals are the first place that things get pirated; it’s the festival programmers, the press, and others in professional film circles,” Henry-Rashid says. “The issue now is, following the cancellations, they’re going online and not supplying viewers with a protected hard drive but low-resolution, easily loaded video files. Most of these platforms aren’t safe.”
“There are trust issues,” he adds. “They are leaking films. There’s no doubt about that. It only takes one.”
The coronavirus-induced spike in piracy will likely decline once quarantines come to an end. Still, the pandemic could impart a lasting legacy on the way film studios and distributors approach home entertainment, according to Brian Newman, founder of Sub-Genre, a film consulting, production, and distribution company based in New York.
“We might see an irreversible impact on film-windowing practices as film companies see the benefits of marketing directly for home viewing and don’t turn back,” he says.
And in the meantime, as quarantines continue, film companies will be closely monitoring piracy activity around key titles to determine if other films should mimic the revised distribution strategy of movies like Bloodshot.
“They will start realizing they can’t open in theaters and instead go direct to Netflix or Amazon,” Newman says. “All of the sudden, they’ll go, ‘Wait a minute, let’s do this more.’ Theaters will probably fight it. But there will be evidence that these things can work faster.”