(This story was amended on Saturday, April 4, to reflect more information from Fox.)
Twentieth Century Fox has narrowed down the source of a leaked copy of its summer blockbuster, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" to a digital working print about a month old, a studio executive said on Thursday.
The FBI is investigating the online leak this week of a copy of the film, directed by Gavin Hood and starring Australian actor Hugh Jackman. But probably more important, the studio itself has several of its own investigators, along with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), hunkered down to identify a suspect and is chasing at least a half-dozen leads.
“It’s incredibly important because of how dangerous piracy is to the industry overall,” said Chris Petrikin, a studio spokesman. “No one is trying to underplay that.”
Though the Internet has been a hazard for Hollywood studios facing illegal downloaders after a movie’s release, it is extremely unusual for an entire film to leak online ahead of its distribution in theaters. In this case, the film leaked a full month before the $130 million, effects-driven adventure film is scheduled to hit theaters.
The breach must be alarming for Fox and for any Hollywood studio that sends its big-budget movies out to third-party vendors for special effects, motion-capture or other high-tech processes, placing the studio's core product at the mercy of Internet pirates -- and Internet critics.
That also makes the investigation particularly daunting, and the studio has been scrambling since earlier this week to trace the origins of the high-quality print.
The print leaked online was digital, rather than on film, making it harder to trace. One scene bore the stamp of a visual-effects company, Rising Sun Pictures, but they are not believed to have had a full copy of the film.
One Fox executive close to the investigation said the studio did not yet know exactly how many outside vendors had access to the film. “There’s the reproduction house sending it to the trailer company or the marketing department, there’s the director, his assistant. Unfortunately there are multiple ways it could get there (to the Internet),” said the executive.
In a statement on Thursday, Fox said the print was unfinished, missing special effects and some scenes, and had a temporary score, and that some scenes were entirely unedited. The movie is not expected to be completed until shortly before its release.
"The FBI and the MPAA are actively investigating this crime," the studio said.
In this case, the film appeared on several file-sharing websites. The effects house Rising Sun Pictures told Entertainment Weekly that they never had a complete print in their possession.
"We worked on individual sections of the film, and Rising Sun Pictures or its staff members have never been in possession of a complete version," said Rising Sun chairman Tony Clark in a statement. "It's common practice for work in progress between us and the production to carry vendor watermarks and for these to be integrated into various edits of the film for screenings, which would explain why our name appears."
In addition, "Wolverine" and Marvel fan sites -- who have been rabidly awaiting the film -- reacted angrily to the leak of the print online. The influential fan site aintitcool.com declared that it would not review the film in that state, an encouraging sign to the studio which fears that an early pan among the fans could hurt the film among its base.
The film is a prequel to the blockbuster hit "X-Men," in which viewers learn of the past of Wolverine, played by Jackman, a mutant with retractable claws and an uncontrolled streak of fury. The film tells the story of Wolverine's epically violent and romantic past, his complex relationship with Victor Creed/Sabretooth (played by Liev Schreiber) and the ominous Weapon X program.
The studio said in its statement: "We are encouraged by the support of fansites condemning this illegal posting."
The movie is scheduled for release on May 1. A studio spokesman said Fox has been trying to get the film removed from file-sharing websites.