Producer Harvey Weinstein was criticised for trying to recut Korean sci-fi masterpiece “Snowpiercer,” and he was accused of burying the film in retribution when director Boon Jong-ho refused to make changes.
Although the film was a blockbuster in Korea and other international markets, Weinstein’s Radius-TWC spent very little on marketing and gave it a limited domestic theatrical release before dumping the movie to video on demand (VOD) two weeks later. Shifting too quickly to VOD risks undermining box office sales and can antagonize theatre owners, which is why distributors have traditionally waited as long as several months.
Despite the controversy, “Snowpiercer” could be turning into a slow-burning domestic hit the likes of which we’ve never seen — and you have to wonder if Weinstein knew what he was doing.
Ten weekends after its release, the independent film has grossed $US11 million in the U.S. and Canada, including $US6.5 million from VOD, according to the production company. Though VOD sales have declined over time, they remain significant, amounting to around $US0.5 million in the last two weeks.
The film has an exceptional 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is already getting Oscar buzz. This strong word of mouth has kept interest in the movie high and it could conceivably lead to a rebound in sales, especially if Oscar talk picks up.
Based on a 1982 French graphic novel, “Snowpiercer” tells the story of a near future in which a failed attempt to stop global warming triggered an apocalyptic ice age and the only surviving humans live on a self-sustaining train that is rigidly divided by class. Starring Chris Evans, who is known for his less compelling work as Captain America, it has more than enough thrilling action to satisfy young men. Evans and the rest of the cast can act, too, though Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton steals the show as the train’s gleeful enforcer of order.
The film is intellectually provocative, putting forth arguments for a classist technocracy under the guidance of a great engineer — the kind of stuff that seems like a logical extension of Silicon Valley dreams — and offering a powerful counter-argument, too. The end of the movie features twists that are compelling at both plot and philosophical levels.
Despite dodgy CGI during some exterior shots, the film is visually stunning, with claustrophobic camerawork moving from the bleak tail section to the tech utopian front.
How much revenue does Radius-TWC need to make a profit? The company declined a request for comment, but Co-President Tom Quinn has noted how much more distributors can earn by cutting theatres out of the equation.
“The rough equation is that every dollar is worth double because of the net return,” Quinn told The Wrap. “No disrespect to theatres, it’s expensive to show a movie, I understand that, but you can’t discount that as a distributor. You also can’t discount how we’re able to push our marketing dollars a lot farther in that kind of a model than in a traditional model.”
Quinn has said repeatedly that the “Snowpiercer” strategy would not work for all movies. Still, its apparent success has triggered wide discussion about a new distribution model for independent movies, and even theatre owners are catching on.
“We got push back from theatre owners on this one,” Quinn told Forbes. “But I think that will change. The country is too big to access audiences in the first window economically and efficiently.”
Radius-TWC has also incorporated early VOD release into other movies along with other experimental distribution methods like showing last year’s comedy “One Chance” on Yahoo for free for ten days prior to theatrical release.
As noted by BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield, other studios and distributors are also likely to warm to VOD expansion as a necessary and valuable form of competition with content providers like Netflix.
Viewers should cheer this trend as it would provide access to a wider range of movies beyond the superhero and toy fare that dominates the U.S. box office. “Snowpiercer” really is that good, and you can watch it at home tonight on
iTunes, Amazon, and other VOD platforms at $US6.99 for rental and $US14.99 for purchase.
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