Will ‘Snowpiercer’s’ VOD Success Change the Film Industry?

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In January of 2006, Magnolia Pictures released Bubble, a micro-budget, semi-improvised independent film about the employees of a small-town doll factory. Two things were notable about the picture: it was from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, and it was the first “multi-platform” release of note — it was released, simultaneously, to movie theaters, DVD, and video-on-demand (still in its infancy at the time). This was a big, huge deal in 2006; theater owners all but rioted over the potential collapse of their exclusivity window, and about the only playdates the film could wrangle were in the Landmark chain (co-owned by Mark Cuban, who, not coincidentally, also co-owns distributor Magnolia).

But in the near-decade since, VOD (both simultaneous to theatrical release, and often before it) has become an invaluable element of the independent film business. And yet the recent multi-platform success of Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer feels like the turning of a corner: an honest-to-God sleeper hit whose near-simultaneous release is benefiting both markets, and, ultimately, moviegoers.

As with any unexpected success, there are legitimate questions about how much of this was actually intentional. Snowpiercer, a multi-national production from South Korean director Bong, began appearing in foreign markets last winter; the United States is one of the last regions to get the movie, which became something of a cinephile cause célèbre when rumors began circulating that American distributor Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein was insisting on 20 minutes of cuts to the picture. Bong’s cut ultimately prevailed, but at a price: Snowpiercer would receive only a limited, platform release, via Radius-TWC, the Weinstein Company’s secondary, little-brother label.

So Snowpiercer, which was released on iTunes and other on-demand platforms last weekend after two weeks of theatrical exclusivity (it played in eight theaters in its first week, 250 in its second), may have only hit home screens so quickly because of sour grapes from its distributor. And by handing off the release to Radius, a boutique arm known primarily for its VOD presence, the company signaled an imminent on-demand release, scaring off the multiplex chains that won’t book movies with a less-than-90-day window. But an interesting thing happened: American moviegoers started seeing Snowpiercer, an inventive, visionary, thought-provoking picture whose political subtext is matched by top-notch action beats and furious energy. And they started raving about it. Its per-screen numbers were excellent. The two-weeks-later on-demand premiere was sooner than expected, making it a real gamble: would the home-viewing option short-circuit what could be a successful theatrical release?

The gamble appears to have paid off. In Entertainment Weekly, Radius-TWC head Tom Quinn says the film earned $1.1 million from VOD the past weekend, on top of its $635,000 in limited-release theatrical. Those aren’t exactlyTrans4mers numbers, butfrom an industry perspective,” Quinn says, “it’s a game changer.” Overhead is much lower on a VOD release than a theatrical (“That $1.1 million gross is actually worth almost double to me in terms of how it nets out in our bottom line,” Quinn says), and the two platforms seem to be genuinely complementing each other: the film’s at-home availability is extending its reach to an audience that may not have access to the limited theatrical release, while its positive buzz is sending moviegoers to the few screens that are playing it.

Let’s be clear about one thing here: Snowpiercer is not exactly an esoteric, indecipherable foreign art film. It is, after all, a science-fiction/action movie, based on a graphic novel, starring friggin’ Captain America. But it’s not a conventional blockbuster either — it’s filled with scathing sociopolitical subtext, making it that rarest of beasts: an action film of ideas — perching the picture in a peculiar niche of being neither purely mainstream nor purely art-house. So, in a way, it’s kind of a perfect film for giving the theatrical-to-VOD transition a little push.

And is that transition worth fighting for? Perhaps. It’s hard to see the Snowpiercer story as anything but good news — unless you’re one of those multiplex owners who warned, way back in 2006, that VOD was a “death threat.” But nobody’s making a fortune from VOD just yet; after all, Snowpiercer’s VOD gross, whether it’s $1.1 million or double that, is still a long way from its $40 million budget (luckily, the film has already recouped that, and then some, internationally). And it’s hard to imagine how anyone made any money off this week’s other, less-heralded Weinstein Company home streaming release: James Gray’s magnificent The Immigrant, which TWC basically dumped in theaters, without even a trailer on its website, barely two months ago. It appeared, without explanation, on Netflix Instant Monday — while still playing in a few theaters, which is genuinely peculiar and all but unprecedented.

I watched it quickly, certain that its Netflix availability must’ve been some kind of mistake that the company would quickly catch. One would think it’s the kind of movie you “have to see on the big screen” (whatever that means these days) — it’s a gorgeous period piece, recalling Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and the De Niro sections of Godfather II, filled with painterly images rendered in a neoclassical style. And the same goes for Snowpiercer, whose Gilliam-esque, futuristic-dystopia vibe and bracing action seem to lend themselves to the theatrical experience. But nothing was lost on my home screen; televisions and Internet connections, as you’ve probably noticed, have gotten bigger and faster, and besides, these films are more than just empty spectacle. The Immigrant’s emotional urgency and Snowpiercer’s explorations of fear, madness, and paranoia translate even to less-than-ideal circumstances.

Ultimately, it’s not a matter of whether VOD will (at the very least) match theatrical movie-going for new releases, but when. The economics make sense — not just the lower overhead for distributors, but the value for consumers (I purchased Snowpiercer — not a rental, but a purchase, complete with DVD-style extras — for $15, which is about what a single ticket in Manhattan would’ve cost me). And most importantly, it’s a question of availability. It’s easy to forget, when you live in New York or Los Angeles, that film lovers in smaller markets don’t get to see independent films until weeks, sometimes months, after we do. Part of the reason Bubble was exciting, back in 2006, was because I lived in a Midwestern market where that film would never, ever have played, and I didn’t have to wait six months to watch it on DVD. There’s no question that, for the foreseeable future, the budget-busting tentpole blockbusters that are mainstream Hollywood’s bread and butter will dominate the multiplex. But if films like Snowpiercer, with genuine crossover appeal, can continue to make home viewing a viable platform, then the teenagers can keep the multiplex that basically exists to serve them — and the rest of us can stay at home, where it’s still possible to see new films that treat cinema as an art.