Snowpiercer – acclaimed Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s first English-language film – is a masterpiece of tense, horrific weird that almost didn’t make it to screens outside of South Korea. It was all set to be the massively disturbing, post-apocalyptic, indie darling of the summer, until the film’s American distributors – the Weinstein Company – battled with Joon-ho over the film’s content and reportedly wanted to cut 20 minutes of the film’s glorious weirdness, in an attempt to tone it down for American audiences.
The film is set in a not-so-distant post-apocalyptic future, in which humanity’s tampering with the environment has plunged the world into perpetual winter. The last humans live on a long train that unendingly circles the globe, divided into the wealthy and privileged at the front of the train and the starving oppressed at the rear. The film’s lead is Curtis, the end of the train’s leader, who leads a rebellion to take the front of the train and save his people from the front’s bizarre and sadistic punishments. The journey along the train in pursuit of the train’s cult leader “Wilford” and the perpetual-motion engine that occupies the front of the train is a brutal one, exposing the viewers to each of the train car’s individual microcosms and leaving them on tenterhooks as the secrets of the train are gradually revealed.
The film has all the makings of a cult hit, maybe even one that could be both critically and popularly successful around the globe. The diverse cast and story concept make it easily transportable between countries. Chris Evans, who’s been both Captain America and the Human Torch, takes the lead as Curtis and gives the film a conventional and attractive hero at its core.
Snowpiercer was wildly successful in South Korea and made over $80 million, yet struggled to make $3.5 million at the box office in the U.S. Why? Snowpiercer’s difficulties outside of Korea can be blamed in part on the Weinstein Company’s meddling, but the economics of indie and niche film releases are changing, and often box offices numbers can no longer be trusted to reveal how successful, or how loved, a film has been.
After a limited release, mostly in art house cinemas in the US and UK, Snowpiercer was also released on video on demand (VoD) systems around the US, most likely saving the distributors millions of dollars in cost and deferring most of the risk of releasing such a violently different film in the United States.
The marketing for Snowpiercer has been minimal – no billboards, ads, or trailers in cinemas. In fact, most of the film’s press has traded off the established fanbases of its actors and director. Joon-ho has an established reputation among foreign-film aficionados in the US and Europe, further cemented as Snowpiercer did well at film festivals around the world. Tilda Swinton, who becomes one of the film’s most striking characters as a government official, reportedly fought so hard for a role that they changed the character gender to include her, and she’s been quick to sing the film’s praises. Chris Evan’s fans from his comic-book films and action/sci-fi roles have already jumped on the bandwagon, especially after Evans promoted it at San Diego Comic-Con.
The VoD style release carries a lot of positives, especially for studios and distributors. More of the profits are passed back to the company and it removes the need for expensive marketing campaigns and deals with theatres. Releasing films is a risky enterprise, especially when they flop, so distributors and studios hope to defer that risk through new forms of release. The VoD market is growing rapidly and Snowpiercer has managed to be reasonably successful on it, even with their distribution battles. There are benefits for viewers too: video on demand systems are often cheaper than cinema tickets and releases become global much more quickly.
There are downsides. There’s a lot of pressure from cinema companies against VoD releases. They require high attendance since their profits rely heavily on selling food and drinks to customers, not just film tickets. VoD releases are faster than cinema releases, but not fast enough for those used to being able to access anything online instantly. When the buzz about a film outpaces its release, it becomes vulnerable to losing viewers to piracy and illegal downloads, especially when high quality rips become available much more quickly in the case of VoD releases.
Snowpiercer is a gem of a film, packed with the high drama of a summer blockbuster but with the story and characters that audiences deserve. Not a film to watch alone or at night, it delivers a fast paced and engaging story about interesting and brilliantly conceived characters. It’s a shame that it, of all films, had to be the lab rat for Hollywood’s new plans, but it is indicative of the changing nature of how we receive films and how we’re convinced to watch them.