Wolverine Expected to Make Up to $100M, Despite Flu and Torrents

wolverine-posterX-Men Origins: Wolverine is premiering this weekend, and Hollywood insiders are even more infatuated with ticket sales than usual. The movie is expected to make anywhere from $75 million to $100 million, with early reports putting last night’s midnight earnings at $4.4 million, a number that Deadline Hollywood calls “amazing.”

There will plenty to celebrate for 20th Century Fox if Wolverine becomes the box-office hit that some are predicting. For one thing, we’re in the midst of a global flu outbreak, complete with 24-hour news cycle panic and a vice president suggesting you should by all means avoid confined and crowded spaces. You know, like theaters. And then there’s the fact that Wolverine has been available online for a whole month now, which again raises the question: How much do these leaks really hurt box office sales?

20th Century Fox went nuts when a number of unfinished work prints of X-Men Origins: Wolverine showed up on BitTorrent sites a month ago. The studio bitterly complained that the summer blockbuster wasn’t finished and that anyone downloading it was harming filmmakers, actors and the fan community. A writer at fellow News Corp. (s nws) entity Fox News even lost his job after writing a column about having watched the leaked version. That didn’t stop BitTorrent users from downloading the movie more than a million times within the first week.

In fact, Wolverine has remained one of the most downloaded movies on The Pirate Bay ever since. That’s kind of remarkable in and of itself, because the leaked version was said to lack proper special effects and a final score, though apparently had the same run time as the one debuting this weekend, despite Fox claiming otherwise. But maybe the raw quality made it even more interesting to fans that wanted to have an early look behind the curtain. Or, as one commenter on The Pirate Bay said: “I actually loved the half-done effects. Made it awesome!”

The leak also provided new fuel to the debate on how to fight piracy and pre-release leaks. 20th Century Fox has been talking about FBI investigations and “significant criminal sentences” if the leaker is caught. Deadline Hollywood writer Nikki Finke echoed those sentiments by suggesting the studio should “punish him/her/them to the full extent of the law.” (Er, isn’t that the job of the courts?) Our own Jackson West, on the other hand, thinks studios should just make their employees stakeholders in the movies.

Either way, it’s too late for Wolverine. The flick’s fate is now in the hands of the downloaders: Will they also flock to the theaters to see the finished product? The answer could determine whether Wolverine becomes a solid summer release or a breakout success like Iron Man, a movie that made around $100 million on the same weekend a year ago. Some commenters on torrent sites seem to suggest that the Wolverine leak only made them more curious about the big-screen experience, while others complain that the lack of distracting special effects made them realize how average the acting was.

Leaks may especially hurt movies that aren’t all that great to begin with, of course. But if that $100 million in box-office sales fails to materialize for Wolverine, we can always blame the swine flu.