Contagion shows the lengths people go to watch a movie they can’t stream


In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film about a pandemic, Contagion, is seeing a spike in viewing. The problem is that Contagion isn’t streaming anywhere — especially in the United States — leading to an increase in rentals on iTunes and torrent downloads.

The Verge partnered with TorrentFreak to examine the rise of people downloading Contagion between January 1st and March 4th. The data is estimated by looking at IP addresses that share the movie, according to TorrentFreak’s site editor Ernesto. Analysts look at torrent tracker data, “which is public and broadcasts downloading IP addresses,” he told The Verge. The data isn’t complete or exact, but torrent statistics never are. Think of them as close estimates.

There are four instances of Contagion downloads spiking between the end of January and early March. Each increase in downloads, varying from a couple of hundred to nearly 20,000, is timed to a major news event in the spread of the new disease. Prior to January 24th, Contagion was seeing a couple of hundred downloads a day. On January 25th, it jumped to over 1,500. By January 29th, when news began circulating that the new coronavirus had touched down in the United States, it was over 18,000 downloads.

The movie was initially most popular in South Korea, one of the most severely affected countries, but its popularity has since been overtaken by the US, according to Ernesto. “These download figures only apply to torrents, which are a small fraction of the piracy landscape,” Ernesto told The Verge. “Streaming piracy is much more popular (but not measurable) so the total piracy numbers are much higher.”

This coronavirus has become an increasingly urgent crisis over recent months. Over 100,000 COVID-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus) cases have been reported worldwide; more than 3,400 people have died, with the vast majority of cases and deaths still in China. Fears over the virus spreading have led organizers of massive tech conferences, including Google I/O, Facebook’s F8, and the annual Game Developers Conference, to cancel or postpone the events. Schools are closing, and offices are asking employees to work from home — making any activity driven by a computer, phone, or TV increasingly more appealing. Like, watching movies.

At the same time that people are torrenting the film, Contagion also jumped up the ranks of iTunes downloads around the world. It’s on the top 10 list in countries like Australia and landing on the top 20 in several more, including the United States. As BuzzFeed reported earlier this week, prior to the new coronavirus outbreak, it wasn’t even in the top 100.

“The similarities between our contagion and the coronavirus are immaterial, accidental, and really not that important,” Contagion writer Scott Z. Burns told Fortune recently. “What is more important and accurate is the societal response and the spread of fear and the knock-on effects of that. That is proving to be accurate.”

Rentals and torrent downloads are also increasing in part because Contagion isn’t available via any of the popular subscription streaming services in the United States. Only those with access to Cinemax — a premium network that is available as an add-on to a few streaming services including Hulu and Amazon’s Prime Channels — can access the movie. While there is a streaming service for Cinemax, called Max Go, it’s not as widely used as Netflix or Hulu. It’s more like HBO Now; to compare, HBO Now has approximately 8 million subscribers, while Hulu has just over 30 million and Netflix has more than 167 million worldwide.

Although Contagion was reportedly available on Netflix and other in other countries recently, it’s disappeared from many. As a result, people have to turn to Amazon and iTunes for rental options or downloading. There’s also an argument that many of the people downloading would use Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime Video to stream the movie via their monthly subscriptions if the option were there; “pirates” tend to spend the most on legal content, according to a 2018 study reported by Motherboard.

The big question is if Contagion were available to stream via Netflix, would it mean that suddenly everyone with a Netflix subscription would watch it? That depends. Streaming services like Netflix spend years working on the recommendation algorithm that leads to what appears on our homepages. These streaming services also tend to push original content over licensed titles. Using Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu as examples, look at the homepage when you open the app. The top carousel spot is reserved for their new big TV show or movie, and scrolling down the page prompts other originals the streamers want people to watch. The streamers aren’t just distributors anymore; they’re networks. Original content earns precedence.

Think of Pandemic, a new docuseries from Netflix about how to prevent a global outbreak. Despite it being an original and something Netflix could heavily promote, it never appeared on my homepage. I don’t watch many documentaries, and I definitely don’t watch anything medical. Even my intake of scientific series and films is low. Therefore, it’s not recommended to me. Other Originals that match my interests are instead. Netflix runs hundreds of A/B tests every year, all in an attempt to match content with people’s interests based on what they watch.

It’s because of this recommendation system that Netflix has started to try to generate conversation about what the majority of its subscribers are watching in each country where it’s available. Netflix rolled out its “Top 10” list in the United States a couple of weeks ago, after testing in the United Kingdom, and plans to enter more countries soon. Those titles are based on subscribers watching at least two minutes of a show or movie (the same data Netflix uses for its metrics). Overwhelmingly, the majority of the Top 10 lists tend to be Netflix Originals. Would Contagion make the Top 10 if it were on Netflix? Possibly, but it’s not certain.

Still, take a glance at recent Google Trends data for Contagion, looking at the past 90 days. The interest is skyrocketing, and the ninth most searched query after just the movie title is “where to watch Contagion?” The 19th, 20th, and 21st queries are “Contagion Netflix,” at the time of this writing. A number of other search queries include “Contagion full movie” and “Contagion full movie download free.”

People want to watch Contagion, and they want to use the streaming services they subscribe to, but without those options, they’re forced to look into rental options and downloading. Netflix executives have publicly said they plan to invest way more in original content instead of acquiring more licensed movies, but one has to imagine that they’re kicking themselves for not bidding on this now.