Over the past week, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the fourth in the Marvel/20th Century Fox franchise, was illegally pirated onto the Web and downloaded millions of times from file-sharing Web sites. “It’s been like Whac-A-Mole,” a studio exec tells me. “Every time we get it removed from one site, it pops up on another.”

Fox is describing it as one of the worst piracy scandals it can recall, since it involves a major studio and a major summer blockbuster. The studio is understandably in a panic. With the film opening on May 1, if those viewers don’t go to a theater to see it, this leak could cause incalculable damage to the box office. Moviegoers may still head for theaters, because the stolen work print is an incomplete early version missing many of its special effects, edited scenes and finished sound and music.

Now the FBI is investigating the crime. Fox forensically marks its content so it can identify sources that make it available or download it. The studio promises that the source of the initial leak and any subsequent postings will be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law.” Indeed, in the past, the courts have handed down significant criminal sentences for such acts. One postproduction house in Australia was initially suspected, and a facility in Dallas was raided, but so far no arrests have been made.

Coincidentally, this came just days before U.S. Congressman Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, held a field hearing in Van Nuys on April 6 to assess the financial impact of global intellectual-property piracy. On April 30, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative is scheduled to release its annual report on intellectual-property policies and practices in other countries. Last year’s report placed nine major offenders on the USTR’s Priority Watch List, including China, Russia, Thailand and Argentina. A RAND study released earlier this month alleges that organized crime is increasingly active in film piracy. Just one problem — that study was funded by the MPAA, the trade association for the Hollywood studios.

Meanwhile, the Web piracy has created a lot of buzz around the pic, both positive and negative. The Internet is filled with fanboy comments about whether Wolverine is any good.

One of those who reviewed the purloined print was Fox News entertainment gossip columnist Roger Friedman. Now he’s out of a job. The longtime “Fox 411” freelancer wrote on April 3 what his bosses felt was a blatant promotion of piracy, posting about finding “the whole Top 10 [of movies now in theaters], plus TV shows, commercials, videos, everything, all streaming away. It took really less than seconds to start playing it all right onto my computer. I could have downloaded all of it, but really, who has the time or the room? Later tonight I may finally catch up with Paul Rudd in I Love You, Man. It’s so much easier than going out in the rain!”

I broke the story about News Corp.’s response, which was swift and severe. First, Roger Ailes, who oversees Fox News, deleted the offending post after he was contacted by 20th Century Fox. Then Ailes fired Friedman as a freelance Fox News entertainment writer. “He promoted piracy. He basically suggested that viewing a stolen film is okay, which is absolutely intolerable. So we fired him,” a source told me Saturday. “Fox News acted promptly on all fronts.”

Friedman has written his gossip column, “Fox 411”, for FoxNews.com for more than a decade, and peppers it with celebrity items, industry news and off-the-cuff movie reviews. He is a controversial writer, who frequently angers the publicity machine surrounding actors, directors, producers, studios, celebrities, movies and TV. Occasionally he has scoops, especially about the music biz. Still, how could he not have known that his writings Friday would hit a nerve with his employers?

I also broke the news that IATSE’s Hollywood locals have declared war on TV programming supplier Larry Levinson Productions over issues of unfair labor practices. When IATSE declared a strike, LLP fired and replaced all the union-repped crews on its big-budget miniseries Mega-Storm, which NBC is purchasing. Picket lines have formed at LLP’s sound stages and shooting locations in Simi Valley.

LLP, unaffectionately known as “Lining Larry’s Pockets,” has been a longtime IATSE holdout, and I know Local 600 has been after the company for a while. Levinson does all those low-budget Hallmark movies nonunion. But the locals are joining to try to organize more work. And now that LLP is doing larger projects, I hear that it has become a prime union target.

IATSE accuses LLP of asking its crews to work 16-plus-hour days, and often six-day weeks, for less than minimum wage and without job security. LLP has signed contracts with both DGA and SAG but has been quoted as saying it will never sign with IATSE. The picket lines form at the anticipated crew-call and wrap times in an attempt to identify and contact the scabs, sitting inside a van with blacked-out windows, who are brought in by the production company.

Meanwhile, LLP security people videotape the IATSE picketers. “Larry has been taking photos and video as well to identify the picketers so that he can continue in his unfair labor practice of discriminating in future hiring based on his employees’ desire to join a union,” a IATSE e-mail alert claims. The locals also are picketing Larry Levinson Productions offices in L.A. The union is trying to pressure NBC not to purchase LLP product.

By the second week of the strike, IATSE Hollywood locals 728, 600, 80, 399, 40, 44, 700 and 705, representing below-the-liners from cinematographers and sound engineers to film editors, were picketing. There has been no solidarity expressed by either the AMPTP-compliant DGA or the SAG National Majority–controlled Screen Actors Guild. In fact, picketers have identified the smiling stepsons of former SAG president (and SAG National Majority supporter) Melissa Gilbert; the young men break the line daily to go to their sound jobs at LLP.

I received word that editor in chief Peter Bart was being moved aside at Variety after 20 years. Tim Gray retains his title as Variety editor and from now on reports to Variety group publisher Neil Stiles. Bart will report to Reed Business Information CEO Tad Smith, who isn’t involved in the day to day of the Variety Group. “Peter will probably try to give advice and stuff, but ultimately it’s Tim’s decision from now on,” one insider tells me. Smith is expert at dealing with problems, and this was his solution to The Bart Problem.

Bart is an old-school holdout for the view that Variety must remain a print publication, while others want to move the trade into the digital era because of eroding advertising. As one movie bigwig e-mailed me, “Are the trades a public-service play for Hollywood?” Neither Daily Variety nor Hollywood Reporter “has more than a quarter-page paid ad today. How do they survive?”

Bart’s new title is “vice president and editorial director of Variety,” but he’s been pushed “essentially up and out” of the newsroom, as one of my sources puts it. He’ll be allowed to continue as the “face” of Variety in public. His column and blog will continue. But Hollywood can now safely ignore him.

LA Weekly