OPINION: Thawing the theatrical model

Snowpiercer’s US release proves that VOD can co-exist with theatrical, although this pattern shouldn’t be used as a default setting for unusual films.

Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer may have won over most of the critics, but it split the film industry and trade press when it came to determining the success of its US release. The film’s multi-platform release – moving to VOD just two weeks after it opened in theatres – has been described as both ground-breaking and a huge waste of a potential breakout hit, with much head scratching and prevaricating in between.

The film certainly has the trappings of a summer blockbuster – although an independent Korean production, it’s a $40m English-language film starring Chris Evans, fresh from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, along with John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Korean star Song Kang-ho.

More importantly, it’s also a visually stunning, post-apocalyptic thrill ride, set on a speeding train that is circumnavigating the globe after attempts to cool global warming have tipped the planet into a new ice age. It’s packed with allegory and social relevance, but can also be enjoyed as a highly original piece of action cinema. It’s no more challenging than anything we’ve seen from Quentin Tarantino, another master genre bender whose films regularly go out on 3,000 screens.

But for The Weinstein Company (TWC), which pre-bought US rights to Snowpiercer at AFM in 2012, it was a film that by virtue of its uniqueness fell between the cracks; too violent and genre-driven for the arthouses, but also too downright dark and weird for mainstream audiences. As the film rolled out last year to critical plaudits and $60m Korean box office, TWC founder Harvey Weinstein said he wanted to cut 20 minutes for North American distribution, a development as predictable as the melting of an Artic glacier. Bong and the film’s producers refused to cut the film and said they believed it merited a wide release.

Eventually a compromise was reached whereby the producers told Weinstein he could release Snowpiercer whichever way he saw fit, so long as not one single frame was cut from the movie. Enter Tom Quinn and Jason Janego at Radius-TWC who gave the film an eight-city platform release on June 27, the same day that Transformers: Age Of Extinction went out on 4,200 screens.

Propelled by positive reviews and word-of-mouth, the film grossed $500,000 in its opening week, with strong per screen averages, and took a further $1.5m in its second week when it was expanded to 250 screens. It was then released on VOD on July 11, significantly shortening the usual 90-day window, at the same time the theatrical release was expanded to 350 screens. Despite its online availability, the film raked in another $1m from theatres in its third week and gave TWC its biggest ever weekly take on VOD with $2m. After two weeks, the film made $3.8m on VOD.

Just before the VOD release, Radius-TWC’s Tom Quinn explained the strategy: “We’re embracing both the benefits of a platform theatrical, but also the merits of going SUPER WIDE, by making it available on more ‘screens’ than any movie this summer.” In other words, Quinn believed the theatrical and VOD releases would enhance rather than cannibalise each other. So was he right? Did this strategy result in the best possible results for the film?

One problem that distributors like Radius-TWC face is that there is still no middle ground for combined theatrical-VOD releases. Some US exhibitors are warming to this model for independent movies, but there are still no more than 500 cinemas prepared to play a film that is releasing early on VOD. So you either go wide and adhere to the 90-day window or do some combination of VOD and a limited theatrical release. It’s a straight choice between risking $25m on p&a for a wide theatrical or settling for the smaller numbers and $5m p&a costs for VOD.

Radius-TWC can certainly claim a success in the case of Snowpiercer – the VOD results are exceptional and the theatrical numbers held up even after the VOD release. But while the film has performed as well as it could have done under the circumstances, there is still that nagging question of whether Weinstein was right. Sure the current $4m theatrical gross is a good result for an independent Korean film in a crowded summer marketplace. But those high per screen averages suggest the film could have opened much wider – it was also pulling in the coveted young male demographic, in addition to the older, arty crowd.

Indiewire’s Anne Thompson and Tom Brueggemann crunched the numbers and concluded that going wide would have brought in around $18m including ancillaries after costs were deducted, while the combined theatrical-VOD release will net around $13m. Yet the perceived success and lower risks of the VOD model may encourage other distributors to always take the same route.

Innovative distribution strategies are the lifeblood of the film industry, especially in the crowded US market as cinema admissions flatten and technological advances transform what is possible in terms of releasing patterns. There will always be films that can never hope to play on thousands on cinema screens and will reach a much wider audience by taking advantage of VOD.

But that doesn’t mean that distributors should never take a risk on films that don’t tick all the right boxes and yet may still merit being released on a few more big screens. Snowpiercer was one of those rare films that could have justified a bit more recklessness.

For innovation to flourish, we also need to see more risk-taking among US exhibitors. If more of them join the VOD experiment, distributors would be able to build out that elusive middle ground between boutique and blockbuster for supposedly niche or at least difficult to categorise films.

They don’t all have to do it. But Snowpiercer is a big-budget action film and social media suggests it didn’t reach everyone who would have paid to see it in a cinema. In this age of empowered customers, it might be time for cinemas to start listening to what the audience wants to see.