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Snowpiercer: Vagaries of commercial art

June 29, 2014

I saw the amazing film Snowpiercer this weekend, and was absolutely stunned by this striking interpretation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige.  It is a rare bird: a cerebral action thriller.  It has an impressive cast:  Chris Evans, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Alison Pill, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton  and the excellent Korean actor Song Kang-Ho.  And, you probably have not seen it – it is only showing in a small number of theaters.  It is only playing in eight US theaters at this time although it will open at approximately a hundred theaters by next weekend.

The film is an extended allegory on religion, North Korean absolute control, and revolutionary movements set within an action thriller genre.  The basic premise is that in an effort to end global warning, science accidentally unleashes a brutal ice age that has killed all of humanity except for a tiny remnant living aboard a massive train that circumnavigates rail lines that circle the globe (with extended bridges connecting, for example, Alaska to Siberia).  The train is strictly segregated with the wealthy in the front, with every luxury imaginable – from sushi bars to hot tub pools – and the masses piled into cattle cars at the back.   A team led by Curtis and Gilliam (a clear nod to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) attempts to launch a revolution to take charge of the engine car – facing a long series of obstacles and challenges.

“Snowpiercer” is a CGI feast – one that normally would play best on the big screen.  And yet, as a result of a controversial deal with Harvey Weinstein’s video-on-demand unit, the film seems destined to be seen by most on the small screen.  Is this the future of cinema in America?

The Boston Globe gives the fascinating backstory behind the release – a story that has a great deal to say about how movies are distributed.  Here are some excerpts:

“Snowpiercer” is a mesmerizing science fiction/action film that moves like the bullet train on which it takes place.[…] “Snowpiercer” isn’t a perfect movie but it is an astonishing one. Bong takes the dystopian fantasies of such movies as “Blade Runner” and “Brazil” and compresses them into an elongated space that rushes forward on speed and story. The film’s visual imagination is baroque, insane, inspired, with each railway car a newly revealed universe of beauty and peril. […] “Snowpiercer” demands to be seen.

It almost wasn’t. Back in 2012, Harvey Weinstein of The Weinstein Co. bought US rights to the film based on its script and a few sample scenes, but when [director] Bong [Joon-Ho]  turned in the finished film the distributor balked. The 126-minute runtime wasn’t as much an issue as the film’s dark tone, often brutal violence, and general creative weirdness. The wide release Weinstein envisioned now seemed risky; secondhand reports had company executives claiming the film wouldn’t be understood by audiences in Iowa and Oklahoma. Bong was told he had to cut 20 minutes or the film wouldn’t be released. In effect, he was being penalized for being too visionary.[…]

Bong refused to make the edits, especially after a Weinstein cut reportedly tested more poorly than the director’s original. Meanwhile, “Snowpiercer” was released in Korea, France, and other countries to rave reviews and massive box-office returns. Finally Weinstein relented: Bong’s version could go out to US theaters — but only in limited release. Instead of playing 600 to 1,000 screens, “Snowpiercer” would be seen in 100 or so art houses and out-of-the-way multiplexes.[…]

A crucial decision seems to have been Weinstein’s relegating “Snowpiercer” to the company’s Radius/TWC subsidiary, which specializes in releasing movies in innovative multiplatform arrays that include theatrical, video on demand (VOD), and other outlets. This practice severely restricts which theater chains will agree to show a film, since most exhibitors believe that digital distribution cannibalizes their customers.[…]  [O]nce “Snowpiercer” went to Radius/TWC — with an as yet unspecified VOD release scheduled for a number of weeks from now — its shunning by theater chains was assured.[…]

What the “Snowpiercer” saga inadvertently reveals is an entrenched industry in the midst of a sea change while paddling against the current as fast as it can. VOD revenues aren’t reported by distributors — meaning there’s no way to compare those numbers with box office grosses — but the anecdotal evidence is clear. More people than ever are dialing up movies on their TVs, laptops, and phones via cable services, Roku and AppleTV boxes, NetFlix, iTunes, and Amazon. The only movies that still draw mass audiences to theaters are heavily promoted studio blockbusters — and even they last only a few weeks — and the occasional art-house hit like “Grand Budapest Hotel.”[…]

What that means for you, the moviegoer, is as yet unclear. At the very least, films that don’t strictly conform to the big-budget studio entertainment model — that are labors of love, or are challenging, or just different — will find it harder than ever to find a big-screen toehold in this paranoid new world. “Snowpiercer” may have been relegated to the exhibition boondocks because it falls between the audience cracks: It’s too violent for genteel art-house audiences, too weird for the mainstream. And yet it’s impossible to believe that an action-packed science fiction movie starring [Chris Evans who previously played] Captain America (with an 86 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, no less [note, as of 6/29, the Rotten Tomatoes rating has risen to 93%])  couldn’t do a decent chunk of business for a few weeks in 600 theaters[…].

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 25, 2015 11:50 pm

    Just found this post; I was lucky enough to see Snowpiercer in the theater. Amazing film! I’ve become a huge Song Kang-Ho fan because of it.

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