Studio’s Choice: The Interview, Snowpiercer, and “Successful Streaming”

By now, you’ve probably heard that The Interview has earned $31 million in VOD sales between December 24th and January 4th, alongside $5 million in ticket sales from its limited theatrical release.

Compare this to the numbers the astonishing Snowpiercer – that weird avant-garde action movie from July by Bong Joon-ho and starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton – raked in during its release. Similarly to The Interview, Snowpiercer was released on VOD a very short amount of time after its theatrical release – just two weeks. The film also had a more exaggerated rollout schedule than The Interview; it opened in 8 theaters, expanded to 250 screens its second week, and to 354 its third week (the same time it was released on VOD).

Snowpiercer also received more sales via VOD than theatrical release. In its first two months on VOD, the film brought in $6.45 million, significantly more than the $4.5 million it drew from its 11-week theatrical release.

Snowpiercer was not The Interview for a variety of reasons. It was an action film by a largely unknown (to American audiences) director, with one recognizable star (and several supporting character actors) in a thoroughly unrecognizable role and a startling tone and vibe. While it also suffered from significant behind-the-scenes issues, these weren’t terrorist threats: rumor has it that significant creative differences between Bong Joon-ho and Harvey Weinstein led to the movie’s truncated theatrical release.

The Interview, on the other hand, was on the receiving end of the most notable act of cyber terrorism in recent memory. The attack, its fallout, and its effect on the rollout of The Interview have all been chronicled rather extensively elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here. (An excellent writeup can be found at Vulture.)

There are two factors that set The Interview apart from Snowpiercer:

Word of Mouth

We may never know the differences in marketing budget between Snowpiercer and The Interview, but there’s one thing I can say definitively: no other movie in 2014 came close to the insane word-of-mouth marketing surrounding The Interview.

The movie dominated the news cycle for about two weeks, capturing the attention of the American people in ways movies rarely do. Where the average movie relies on cast interviews, night show appearances, press events, websites, and studio-run social media campaigns, The Interview was the subject of countless op-eds, flame wars across the blogosphere, and even an official statement from President Obama.

These accomplished what few marketing campaigns can: it turned The Interview’s rollout into a watercooler discussion point. Americans wanted to see the movie that incensed North Korea so much. (Some even saw their decision to watch the movie as an act of patriotism.)

Subject Material

As disappointing as it is for me to say this, Snowpiercer is not a movie the majority of America would want to see. It’s violently allegorical, philosophical and shocking and altogether weird. I found it fascinating (though perhaps problematic in its portrayal of classicism), but it was never meant for widespread acclaim outside critical circles.

The Interview, on the other hand, is … well, it’s not a terribly difficult film to enjoy. Its humor is accessible, its plot zany and irreverent enough for the South Park and The Simpsons generation to enjoy, and it has two highly recognizable and reliable actors at its forefront.

Do I think The Interview signals a new direction for Hollywood? Not quite. Early numbers put its planned theatrical release at around $100 million, a far cry from the $36 million it’s drawn so far. Still more difficult to replicate (and, one hopes, never to happen again) are the circumstances under which it was released.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore numbers like these. When a film can bring in more via VOD sales than some movies make in their entire domestic release, you have to wonder: what might Hollywood gain by taking advantage of this technological advance? And, how could the release formula be tweaked to get more people to watch from the comfort of their own home, through On-Demand, iTunes, Amazon Prime, VOD, or any other streaming rental service?

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