Snowpiercer is not only one of the best movies of the year, but it’s come with an interesting controversy regarding its distribution in the US. The typical Don Quixote version of this is ably represented by Grady Hendrix and Kaiju Shakedown:
Taking Korean money, an English-language script, and a bunch of American and British actors, [director Bong Joon-Ho] headed to Europe to shoot, then sold his movie internationally, treating America as just one more foreign territory rather than as the promised land.
Unfortunately, he sold those English-language rights to the Weinstein Company who, in typical Weinstein fashion, declared that American audiences were morons who couldn’t follow the plot and so they’d have to cut 20 minutes from the film and add voiceover narration to the ending in order to render Bong’s film comprehensible to this nation of presumed mouth-breathers. Bong held out for seven months, but finally he took the choice the Weinsteins offered him, trading a wide release for artistic control.
This is more or less the version of the story I saw from very early on at other fan-based sites such as Twitch. Today I was poking around trying to figure out if Snowpiercer had made more money internationally than the $82 million that Box Office Mojo reports when I started running into an alternative story. This story is perhaps best represented by the recent headline at Business Insider: ‘Snowpiercer’ Is Leading A Revolution In The Movie Industry, And It’s Putting Hollywood To Shame. According to this version of events, Weinstein was playing around with a new distribution model that put the film into a limited number of theaters for two weeks and then released it on VOD. With this model the film has so far made a total of $11 million in the North American market ($6.5 million of that in VOD as of the beginning of September), but this is considered big money because of the much lower marketing costs.
I can’t claim to follow all the insidery business calculations of this story, but it’s interesting to read some of the arguments about different distribution strategies. Anne Thompson and Tom Brueggeman at Indiewire published a long piece in July that outlines some of the arguments and tries to crunch numbers about what the film will net in North America this way as opposed to what it would have netted if it had gone for a wide-scale theatrical distribution. They conclude that they could have made $5 million more with the wide-scale theatrical release, but whatever the case Harvey Weinstein is claiming victory (surprise!) and the gist of the articles I’m seeing is that we’ll see more releases like this. It gives more context to the announcement this week that the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will be released simultaneously on Netflix and IMAX, bypassing the big theatrical exhibition chains.