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EXCLUSIVE: Harvey Weinstein Explains How ‘Snowpiercer’ Became a Gamechanger, We Crunch Theater vs. VOD Numbers

EXCLUSIVE: Harvey Weinstein Explains How 'Snowpiercer' Became a Gamechanger, We Crunch Theater vs. VOD Numbers

Thirty years in, Harvey Weinstein knows the distribution business. While he’s a wily theatrical animal who knows when to spend big on a wide release and when to dump a movie, he took a radical route with Bong Joon-ho’s action adventure "Snowpiercer," starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, seizing the chance to try something new. Weinstein’s decision to open an action picture with major movie stars via autonomous subsidiary RADiUS with a video-on-demand release two weeks after its theatrical opening is rippling through the film community.

As the Hollywood studios struggle with a depressed summer box office, losing the fickle young male demo and locked into a standoff with theater chains on release windows, they’re watching the independents experiment with video-on-demand release models. "Snowpiercer" marks a tipping point in the movie industry’s shift from analog to digital. Why? It marks the most commercial movie to ever open in theaters and quickly go to VOD.

According to Weinstein, following two weeks in theaters, "Snowpiercer"’s first week on VOD earned $2 million, a company record. That’s a serious number, exceeding the performance for their previous breakout "Bachelorette" (VOD cume: $8.2 million). Movies with stars have always performed better on VOD.

Three indie companies, IFC, Magnolia and Roadside Attractions, have had significant VOD success with big-name films that also had some theatrical impact. The first major "multi-platform" release, Magnolia Pictures’ 2007 heist film "Flawless," starring Demi Moore and Michael Caine, used a well-promoted theatrical launch to build the imprimatur of quality as well as a sizable VOD audience to the tune of $2 million; in 2010 Magnolia’s "All Good Things," starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst, returned over $5 million on VOD alone. The current multi-platform record-holder is reportedly Roadside Attraction’s "Arbitrage," at $11 million on VOD.  The balancing act is when to exchange the hefty marketing costs of a theatrical release for a smaller VOD number–without the promo expense. Many filmmakers still resist this shift, insisting that a theatric release remains the best way to enhance a movie’s ultimate library value.

Recognizing the shifts in the market, Weinstein banked on the VOD future three years ago by starting an autonomous division at The Weinstein Co., RADiUS, headed by two presidents, Tom Quinn and Jason Janego, who had pioneered theatrical/VOD releasing at Magnolia under president Eamonn Bowles. Believing passionately that there’s a bigger audience to be found on VOD, the duo have been experimenting with different models for multi-platform releases, from premium video-on-demand, which makes a film available at a high premium price-point ahead of theatrical, to theatrical with a much shorter VOD window.

Most of the big theater chains demand that distributors preserve a 90-day window before releasing films on VOD, and refuse to book films that open in advance of that window. About 500 theaters are willing to book VOD titles. (Roadside Attractions, on "Margin Call" and "Arbitrage," had to four-wall some theaters–buying out the runs–in order to get around this. The upside is you collect all the returns.)

A multi-platform release was not Weinstein’s original plan for "Snowpiercer," which he acquired after reading the French graphic novel and screenplay and seeing some early footage. Korean producer-distributor CJ Entertainment and Bong wanted a 2500-screen release. 

But when Weinstein saw the final film with moviegoers he decided that the picture wouldn’t play for a wide audience without editing changes, especially in the Korean language sections. But Bong didn’t want to alter his film. That was the crux of the much-publicized debate over the film. Go with the director’s cut theatrically and risk spending $25 million on prints and ads and possibly disappoint a mass audience, or stick with the artist’s vision?

Weinstein looked at the film’s performance in France, where it fell off after the opening week and scored only $5.3 million, even though the graphic novel was popular there, which told him it was a cult release. And he saw that Rotten Tomatoes’ score from critics was 94% vs. users’ 77%. That showed him that the film would not play widely with a mainstream audience. 

"CJ wanted to go wide, they believed in it," Weinstein says in a phone interview. "I read the script and saw the footage and when I saw the final movie with the very artistic flourishes that we all love, I thought, ‘it’s not for a wide audience, it’s a smart movie for a smarter audience.’"

So Weinstein renegotiated (for a much smaller minimum guarantee and P & A commitment) a compromise release of Bong’s uncut film with RADiUS, who had earned Bong’s trust at Magnolia, having championed three of his earlier films, including "Mother"–critically praised subtitled genre fare that was not being chased after by other distributors. Quinn and Janego saw a chance to finally try the paradigm that they had wanted to use for "Spring Breakers," but couldn’t get those filmmakers to agree–instead taking a more conventional approach via A24.

Quinn and Janego passionately argued with Weinstein to let them release "Snowpiercer" for two weeks in the theaters that were willing to book it–not always the top-ranked performers in each market–and go to VOD on the third weekend, taking full advantage of market awareness. The theatrical marketing–a fraction closer to $5 million than $25 million–provided the launchpad for VOD. "We’ve devised a multi-platform model," says RADiUS’s Quinn. "We’re here to crack that no man’s land between a boutique movie and a blockbuster where there’s no middle ground." 

"RADiUS did it perfectly for a giant financial success," boasts Weinstein. "We’ve done $2 million in a week on VOD. We’ve never done that much, it’s our biggest weekly number. I think we wind up grossing $4-5 million theatrical beyond VOD, which makes for us all with ancillaries like TV very profitable. That’s the reason I brought in Tom and Jason to TWC, to do an amazing job. I’m not just an old theater guy, I want to be innovative and make movies work."

RADiUS-TWC has been active since September 2012 (their initial VOD release was "Bachelorette"), but also focused on theatrical ("20 Feet from Stardom"). Nothing among their VOD titles has had close to the potential of "Snowpiercer," based on how it performed in its brief two-week theater play without VOD competition.

In an uncertain theatrical world, Weinstein was convinced that the uncut "Snowpiercer" was not a guaranteed success in theaters. But its theatrical performance reveals that it was potentially one of the year’s biggest specialized releases, with the potential to gross between $40-60 million theatrically, perhaps as much as "Grand Budapest Hotel," the year’s biggest specialty success, which is now just under a $60 million total. Only "Chef" from Open Road has grossed over $25 million as a conventional word-of-mouth theatrical release. 

This estimate is based on "Snowpiercer"’s extraordinary opening weekend performance. The PSA of the eight initial theaters was $21,000, slightly above average for a five-city release. Because exhibitors knew of the imminent VOD release, most top-grossing theaters in initial cities–including industry specialized exhibition leader Landmark Theatres– were not available to RADiUS, either based on a policy of not playing releases without a minimum 90-day window, or because they recoiled at playing a film with higher appeal than any previously slated for parallel or near-term streaming. 

RADiUS wisely did not announce the imminent VOD date (it leaked), so as to encourage moviegoers to go to the movie. Also, when a movie pops up on VOD menus, the news lights up on social media, providing free and instant publicity. 

If we compare the "Snowpiercer" grosses at two locations in New York and Los Angeles, the film’s performance clearly indicates that the film was a high-end specialized performer. The film opened with less initial advertising from RADiUS than the TWC buy for same-day release "Begin Again."

If "Snowpiercer" had opened at the four best possible theaters in these two cities, with multiple screens ("Snowpiercer" on one Angelika screen in New York outgrossed "Begin Again" on three), this would have had a likely PSA of between $40-60,000. That number is higher than recent Weinstein films "August: Osage County" and "Philomena," both of which grossed almost $40 million. The numbers include records at the Sundance Sunset in Los Angeles, and strong results elsewhere.

But the film also showed much wider than usual specialized success, suggesting appeal beyond the core often older, critic-influenced crowd. It gave signs of playing for the younger, male, recently increasingly difficult to reach Comic-Con crowd (as this summer’s overall disappointing grosses reveal). 

Weinstein will also be releasing "Snowpiercer" in several hundred theaters in the UK, which has less sophisticated VOD apparatus, and will watch the film’s performance closely this weekend in Australia as well. 

Here’s TOH box office analyst Tom Brueggemann’s financial projected breakdown based on a 2500-screen theatrical release reaching a projected $50 million, based on sources inside and outside TWC and RADiUS.

The theatrical breakdown:

  • Marketing expense of $25 million
  • Film rental (45%) of $22.5 million
  • Weinstein has an ongoing deal with Netflix (RADiUS as an autonomous company owned by Weinstein doesn’t fall under this). Sources familiar with gross-based Netflix deals suggest that the payout to TWC could have been around $10 million.
  • Blu-Ray/DVD would have grossed around $6 million (split revenue, with around $3 million net to TWC).
  • Cable, depreciated somewhat by Netflix exposure, perhaps $6 million more.

Using those figures (again, all of this comes from discussions with multiple players who have worked on specialized films that have grossed in this range, but these could vary widely) show that at $50 million gross TWC would end up netting around $18 million after marketing is deducted when all initial platform revenues came in.

The VOD breakdown: VOD earnings are harder to calculate and project, but here’s a stab after discussing details with multiple industry sources:

  • The first week’s reported total earnings on VOD and iTunes was $2 million, ranking #1 on the latter. Industry estimates on the distributor return — RADiUS would not confirm any specific deals — ranges from 60 to 80%, much more than theatrical.
  • Theatrical gross is up to $3.5 million, with $5 million or higher possible. That would mean film rental of between $2-2.5 million. Marketing of about $5 million is a fraction of what TWC’s would have been (increasing VOD sales), but likely could equal the film’s theater gross.
  • Radius cites 85 million potential customers (multiple people can view the same purchase). 1-2% of these potential buyers actually purchasing the film — a high number for a first-run or shortly thereafter VOD title — would mean somewhere between 850,000 and 1.7 million buyers.
  •  Cable VOD and iTunes costs vary — different cable markets have different price points (it’s $6.99 on Time-Warner LA right now — this often decreases in later weeks). ITunes started at $14.99 to buy the film. Let’s estimate that between the two, the average price ultimately will be $9. 
  • A 2% customer purchase level would mean, at a $9 average price, $15.3 million in revenue. RADiUS’ share estimated at 65% would be about $10 million. Based on the first weekend of $2 million in purchases, this could be a high, but again, the holds for VOD are much better than for theaters.
  •  Blu-Ray/DVD and cable would still bring in revenue, but with the lower theatrical gross and the early VOD, at a lower level than with a pure theatrical release. Figure an additional $5 million return to RADiUS. 

By this model, RADiUS gets an after-marketing initial return of $13 million including theatrical gross and subtracting marketing. Again, this is calculating at the high end of possible performance from this multi-platform pattern. The theatrical-driven alternative model was calculated at a slightly less optimistic ($50 million) estimate and again looks like it might have shown a profit of $18 million.

In context though, and as a test of an unproven model, this is more than a respectable showing. It’s a strong enough result to suggest RADiUS and others will continue to experiment with this.

The caveats –despite this impressive potential performance: 

  • First, the combination of elements — strong reviews, cult interest in the director and graphic novel, significant stars, genre appeal — are tough to replicate, and finding the right film to succeed with this won’t be easy. 
  • Second, the excitement for the film came in large part because it did have an initial theatrical play, way over what most specialized films could ever expect and better than most this year that have played at the top theaters. It was key to keep the public unaware of the near-term VOD availability, as many ticket buyers were lured by the attention the film grabbed by opening in theaters with elevated reviews and decent grosses. 
  • The fact that "Snowpiercer" as a genre film was an unlikely Oscar contender also made it possible to take a chance on this kind of opening. Would Roadside have pursued this release on "All Is Lost" or CBS on "Inside Llewyn Davis"? They might have made more money if they had–those awards bookings were expensive given the ultimate theatrical return. 
  • And what is the cost to parent company Weinstein’s relationships with theaters? Presumably RADiUS gives them some deniability. Apart from rankling some of their key customers, this decision also means that a company that so far this year has seen its market share drop to 1.5% (way below their normal annual level) was willing to lose a chance to buttress those numbers.

Unquestionably some sort of increased VOD model will come into play. How will top exhibitors react? Back in the late 1970s, when video first became available, they recoiled and tried to wish it away. But they lost the chance to let the studios use theaters as their exclusive outlets for video rentals, at a time when no retail infrastructure had been built. The best bet for specialized theaters under threat is to allow a four-week theatrical window, allowing top theaters in major markets to have initial crack (perhaps at lower film rental) and accelerated opening dates for some films.

The major chains will still refuse to do this, as wide-release films present a more complex scenario, particularly with the international market affected by any domestic changes. Top specialty theaters could end up facing less competition. They might also hold out for longer regional exclusivity that could work to their benefit. But whatever the ultimate solution, the impact of "Snowpiercer" means we are likely to see more, not fewer, attempts to find the right balance between theatrical and VOD.

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I read the 1st paragraph and stopped. I was PISSED right away that you would Actually frame this the way you did. Like Harvey is anything but a fat, self important idiot w/ a lot of money and no idea about film as an art. He is NO VISIONARY. He dumped this film because the Director refused to make the changes Harvey insisted on. And good for him. It show a lot of integrity for a Director trying to get his start in Hollywood w/ English films.Harvey is an idiot. This film was HUGE and I was watching it free on-line before it was even in theater.

Jim Jarmusch

After seeing the uncut Snowpiercer, I must conclude that Harvey is mentally disabled.

Michael Harpster

The assumption that this film would do $50 mil dbo is very speculative. Simply look at the curretn charts. It's all too easy to miss and end up with 30 and the whole thing collapses. This one might open to 15 mil on 2500 but the drop off would kill it and they end up with 30-ooops.!


I saw Snowpiercer in a theater, traveling across town to view it. After, I couldn't imagine why it wasn't in general release, because given a decent amount of promotion, it could have been a real breakout hit in this lackluster summer box office.

The Weinstein group appears to have underestimated the drawing power of Chris Evans, particularly coming off of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I thought his performance in Snowpiercer alone was worth the price of admission.

I have access to VOD, but it is not my preferred method of viewing a movie. I'd rather see a big action movie on the big screen, as it was meant to be seen.


Does Harvey have a need to butcher a great foreign film every summer now? I ask because if you remember last summer Harvey "scissorhands" released a truncated version of Wong Kar Wai's "The Grandmaster," (supposedly with Wong's approval) and it did okay, but like "Snowpiercer" had a limited theatrical release and was not nearly as good as the full length original cut. Even more strange, scenes appeared in the truncated version that weren't in the full length at all, and a tacky ending and a bad rap music were put on the trailer to "sell" it. Someone needs to stop Harvey from doing this again – what foreign film will he butcher for next summer?


Interesting article, Tom & Anne, but unfortunately I'm finding myself siding with the comments. He's certainly f—ed around enough with the release date of Tracks and I'm sick of it.


They will continue to posture as if this was some master stroke. It was not. They completely mishandled this movie. With minimum typical release and promotion it would have performed dramatically better. This was an ego play and now they are spinning it as a genius move.


"When I saw the final movie with the very artistic flourishes that we all love, I thought, 'it's not for a wide audience, it's a smart movie for a smarter audience.'" In other words, Harvey Weinstein prefers to underestimate the intelligence of a mass audience and dump a phenomenal film like "Snowpiercer" in VOD instead of working in order to urge the viewers try an undoubtedly uncompromising but extremely entertaining film in theaters. That's just disheartening. Let's buy a "movie with the very artistic flourishes that we all love", fight with a genius auteur like Bong Joon Ho to re-edit the film because the audience may be too dumb to "get it", bury the film in a limited and VOD release date and be proud of ourselves for treating a groundbreaking masterpiece like a trashy '80s cult project. Why did The Weinstein Company bought it anyway? If you truly love cinema and you believe in an – objectively speaking – innovative sci-fi film, Mr. Weinstein, I think you try your best to make the mass audience connect with it. That's the truth. Everything else is just bullshit in order to prevent a loss of money. Understandable, but the question remains: why did you have to buy it on the first place? Leave it to someone else. Just saying.

Jason Lemmon

Yeah, that's great and all, but this all only worked out because it's a foreign production. This is a South Korean production and the Korean market got behind it and made it a success. But if this was an American film, then all this would have made it a bomb. I'm not sure whether to agree with Harvey or not. I'm not so sure he would be right on how well it would have done had it given wide release marketing. You can't go by what it did in France. We have Captain America over here and he is in this movie. Boom, there is that right there to help. I mentioned the movie to a few people who never heard of it and as soon as I said Evans was in it, they wanted to see it.

All this article shows is the most money Harvey was able to put back in his wallet, in comparison to shelling out as little as possible.

No One Of Consequence

What I find odd is that the article itself says that the film likely will make $13mm in profit on the high end from this model, but probably would have made closer to $18mm from a more traditional release pattern. Furthermore, it goes on to point out several caveats that make Snowpiercer's ability to succeed in this release pattern unique.

Frankly, if Harvey is walking away from what would probably be $5mm in additional profit, I think it is more likely about him trying to sabotage a film's release than encourage a new business model.


Another "caveat" that has to be considered is the "what didn't they want us to see" factor. Stories of the battles between Weinstein and Bong over final cut were all over the place, giving an extra push to viewers to see something they knew the notoriously cut-happy Weinstein was unhappy about releasing.

Edward Sullivan

Saw this in San Francisco at a matinee showing. Thought it was great – as did the two other ticket-buyers in the theater, all three of us way past 50. Sad to say, I think Harvey Weinstein's assessment was 100% on the money, and it is, after all, his money.

Calm Mentor

What's more indie than Harvey Weinstein and a post-apocalyptic action movie? Everything.

Daniel Lowe

What I heard through the grapevine is that Weinstein didn't like the film's message about wealth inequality and dumped it to a format where it was unlikely to be successful.

The film's success is probably a surprise to him.. he'll take the credit (and the profits) anyways….

It's a "smart movie for smart viewers".. oh yeah, well where to the kids go in the school scene when the guns come out? (yeah, they disappear in an instant, it's a continuity problem)

Weinstein is making excuses, this movie isn't any "smarter" than the Hunger Games.

Nancy Nigrosh

Thanks Anne and Tom,
What the industry needs more of than anything is fearless vision and flashy leadership, qualities and actions that are scarce. To re-consider and re-focus the market share(s) in this way from a position of strength, is worthy of everyone's attention who values the feature film business.

Bob James

Wheres the part in the article that says the movie also cost 40M to even make. A paltry 2M in VOD isn't going to make up even close to that number…


A clarification is appropriate relative to exhibitors and home video rentals. True that theater owners were concerned about home video and for good reason. It was a radical attack on the exclusivity cinemas had enjoyed for a long time. But when approached by some exhibitors with the idea of using theater lobbies as video rental centers, promoting them with on screen trailers, every studio head's response was "Nobody wants to rent them. Is it is sell-through market." With a retail price of $60-75 per VHS, they were not thinking but the theatrical side of distribution didn't like video either. It was a threat to their very existence. Home video divisions sometimes set their release dates earlier than the 6 month window when they saw an opportunity and theater distribution learned about it too late to fight back.

Despite exhibitors offering to share video rental revenue of a percentage bases just like film rental, distributors refused to discuss it. Some theater tried anyway but the cost of buying inventory proved to be too much of an financial outlay. The sharing approach would have delivered enough copies to meet demand with a modest minimum guarantee per unit.

The industry sat watching as mom and pops and then Tower Records and others bought videos at wholesale and set up rental departments, raking in the money without having to share revenues. When the studios woke up the mold had been set and attempts to change the model failed. Eventually Blockbuster, needing large numbers of videos for the early weeks of home video release negotiated low percentage deals in exchange for enough units to meet public demands. They also often got exclusive extras and even windows a week or two ahead of other video stores.


The theaters that refuse to play films day-and-date with or just ahead of VOD, unless it is on low film rental or 4-wall basis are not thinking of their audiences' perception. The public only knows the movie is playing at that theater, not on what terms so those exhibitors should clarify their reason for "not booking" such releases. If they want moviegoers to think that a movie playing on their big screens will not be coming to home screens very quickly, they need to take a clear position.

Back in 1983 Universal decided to release THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE with Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury and Linda Ronstadt simultaneously in theaters and on demand via Select TV. Fewer than 100 theaters showed it, most boycotting the film to make a statement. The theaters that did show it had considerable success because a certain audiences really wanted to see it and most did not have access to SelectTV.

Independent exhibitors who decide to show VOD friendly movies might find an opportunity to benefit as long as they choose the right titles and if the film rental terms are fair.


Keep dumping films like this to VOD and Weinstein's market share will continue to plummet…when will filmmakers grow a pair and stop allowing this guy to destroy their

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