As the summer blockbuster season lumbers on towards Labor Day, something truly out-of-the-ordinary blipped to life on the cultural radar, defying all conventional wisdom and possibly even signaling a sea change in an industry grown fat on sequels, remakes and comic book franchises. ‘Snowpiercer,’ a science-fiction thriller starring ‘Captain America’ lead Chris Evans and directed by Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, debuted on video-on-demand a mere two weeks after it received its theatrical premier in major cities and raked in a respectable $1.1 million from the service, nearly doubling its box office numbers despite a limited ad campaign. In comparison to the fourth ‘Transformers’ movie, which took the top spot over the weekend with over $100 million, the numbers may look like a drop in the bucket, but they’re solid enough to get industry insiders talking and raise questions about how films will be released in the years to come. If you can make money just from putting a movie on VOD, is paying for a theatrical release even worth it anymore?
Tilda Swinton (far left) and Chris Evans (center) bring a level of star power rarely seen on VOD.
In many ways, it’s hard to see why ‘Snowpiercer’ didn’t get a wide release. All of the ingredients for a profitable summer blockbuster – solid performances, visceral action scenes, eye-popping FX – are in place and the fact that it’s being talked about at all after premiering on only eight screens proves that it has a wide, if not quite universal, appeal. Yet Bong Joon-ho’s idiosyncratic directing, which makes use of sudden changes in mood and a careful balance of the satirical and the serious, pushes the film away from blockbuster territory and into the ‘creativity before commerciality’ lair of the arthouse flick. Throw in the fact that a major character needs subtitles and it’s easy to see why its corporate handlers were reluctant to put it up against ‘Transformers’ and ‘Planet of the Apes.’
Ultimately, the success of those two films ensures that we won’t see the end of traditional theaters anytime soon, but the success of ‘Snowpiercer’ still shows that there’s money to be made in VOD and that it could be used as an avenue to reach a special breed of moviegoer who’s fed up with the shock-and-awe digitalism of summer blockbuster. Harvey Weinstein, who guided the film’s release as head of The Weinstein Company, claimed in an interview with Indiewire that “…when I saw the final movie with the very artistic flourishes that we all love, I thought, ‘it’s not for a wide audience, it’s a smart movie for a smarter audience,’” which lead him to entrust the film’s distribution to his subsidiary Radius-TWC, whose two presidents, Tom Quinn and Jason Janego, had pioneered theatrical-to-VOD release models while working at Magnolia Pictures. Far from keeping it away from interested cinephiles, Quinn believed that releasing ‘Snowpiercer’ on VOD would ensure that it found its most receptive audience. As he explained to the L.A. Times: “85 million-plus consumers will have access to ‘Snowpiercer’ on VOD. The film will be more widely available than every other film on screen this weekend.”
VOD may not rival traditional theaters anytime soon, but ‘Snowpiercer’ proves that it will be a force to be reckoned with in the years to come.