When it hit theaters on June 27, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's critically acclaimed sci-fi thriller "Snowpiercer" appeared to have the trappings of a summertime hit.
It had a grabby premise (haves and have-nots battling it out on a train hurtling through a post-apocalyptic landscape). It had wall-to-wall action (sword fights, fistfights, gunfights). It had a major star (Chris Evans of the "Captain America" and "Avengers" franchises), a daring actress (Tilda Swinton), and rave reviews (a glowing 94 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
There was just one bump in the road to box office glory: "Snowpiercer" opened in only eight theaters - 4,225 fewer than "Transformers: Age of Extinction" premiered in on the very same day.
Now, two weeks later, as part of an unprecedented experiment in film distribution, "Snowpiercer" just got a whole lot easier to see. As of Friday, the movie became available on iTunes and on-demand, much earlier than a theatrically released film normally would be.
The film's distributor, Weinstein Co.'s boutique division Radius-TWC, says the unusual release pattern of "Snowpiercer" has all been part of a carefully orchestrated strategy aimed at bringing the movie to the widest audience possible. At a time when Hollywood is struggling to work out where movies are heading in the digital age - a subject that director Christopher Nolan tackled earlier last week in a much-discussed Wall Street Journal op-ed piece - many will watch closely to see how that strategy pans out.
Early on, some speculated that "Snowpiercer's" theatrical release may have been curtailed due to a behind-the-scenes dispute over the cut of the film. But Radius-TWC Co-President Tom Quinn says that from an early point the company honed in on the idea of giving the film (which remains in its original, director-approved cut) a platform theatrical release paired with an accelerated video-on-demand debut.
"'Snowpiercer' fits this (strategy) perfectly because it's in the gap between what constitutes a wide release and a specialized release," Quinn said. "We expect for it to work theatrically, and we expect it to work on VOD. We hope that they can enhance each other."
Indeed, "Snowpiercer" has performed well in theaters, albeit in a relatively limited capacity. The film, which expanded to 250 screens in its second week and to 354 screens last weekend, has grossed more than $2 million and boasted strong per-screen averages. (Internationally, it has earned more than $80 million, the majority of that in South Korea.)
By releasing "Snowpiercer" on VOD ahead of the typical schedule, Radius-TWC risks short-circuiting the movie's theatrical performance. Exhibitors are, understandably, reluctant to keep screens available for films that are playing in people's living rooms. But Quinn, who ultimately would like to expand "Snowpiercer" to about 600 screens, argues that the early VOD release represents a way to reach more potential viewers while buzz around the film is still strong.
"The motto at Radius is 'a screen is a screen is a screen,'" Quinn said. "We're screen-agnostic, and as consumer habits change, film audiences today are becoming screen-promiscuous. Starting Friday, 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 combined. One way or the other, we're going to find you somewhere."
For some cinephiles the shift toward VOD, with many independent films being simultaneously released in theaters and on various on-demand platforms, has been an uncomfortable one.
While it unquestionably makes films more widely available than they would otherwise be, watching a movie on a TV, laptop, tablet or phone is hardly the same as seeing it in a theater. Some argue that releasing films this way diminishes film as an art form. For his part, though, Quinn believes that experiments like the "Snowpiercer" release are exactly what is needed to safeguard the future of movies as we've known them.
"I believe theatrical and VOD can coexist," Quinn said. "The more competitive it is, the better the content will be. You have to tailor a release strategy to each movie. It's not one-size-fits-all."
Film distribution has always been as much art as science. We'll never know how "Snowpiercer" might have fared if it had been released on hundreds or even thousands of screens right out of the gate; it's certainly more offbeat and philosophical than your typical summer blockbuster, so it's quite possible that it could have become lost in the shuffle.
But however successful the "Snowpiercer" experiment ultimately proves, it has already shown us one thing: When it comes to Hollywood's digital future, the train has left the station.
Josh Rottenberg: firstname.lastname@example.org