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Is the 'Transformers' Audience Smart Enough for 'Snowpiercer'?

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 25, 2014 at 10:24AM

In Austin, "Snowpiercer" screens in a unique setting that draws out the particular conditions of its release.
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South Korean director Bong Joon-ho recently took his son to see "Godzilla" in IMAX. Almost a decade earlier, Bong made his own aquatic monster movie, "The Host," considered by many as one of the greatest modern entries in the genre. But before Bong had the chance to compare the new blockbuster with his effort, a trailer for "Transformers: Age of Extinction" brought him back to the present.

"They showed these huge, dinosaur robots as if they were shot with telephoto lenses," the director recalled this past weekend in Austin. "It was a really great effect. And then I realized, 'Oh yeah, I'm going up against this movie in the states.'"

Bong's fifth feature, the post-apocalyptic sci-fi spectacle "Snowpiercer," opened in his hometown over a year ago. But when Radius-TWC releases it this Friday, "Snowpiercer" may face its biggest hurdle to date: After dodging efforts by Harvey Weinstein to recut the two-hour-plus story, this colorful Michael Bay alternative must attempt to stand out in the shadow of the summer's biggest movie.

You couldn't ask for a more intriguing contrast. "Snowpiercer" takes place in a near future setting not long after a deep freeze kills off the majority of mankind. The only survivors live in the close quarters of a train designed to travel in circles until the end of time, but not all train cars are created equally. In the tail-end of the train, Chris Evans leads a revolt among the lower-class passengers as they engage in a series of brutal encounters in their running attempt to reach the front of the train. Along the way, they cope with a trenchant overseer played with eerie flamboyance by Tilda Swinton, a demented classroom of brainwashed upper-class students, and pause to enjoy some fine sushi.

"Snowpiercer"

With the action and tone fluctuating from car to car, "Snowpiercer" is a strange, erratic piece of genre filmmaking, but it delivers the excitement and visual polish of countless Hollywood blockbusters even as its class warfare metaphors hold tight. It's the kind of distinctive, compelling spectacle that studios almost never make.

Beyond its broader representation of social hierarchies, "Snowpiercer" readily presents a metaphor for its own uneasy route to the American public. Just as the tail passengers wrestle their way to the front of the line, virtually every movie released outside of the studio system must fight to stand out in a cluttered marketplace. With "Snowpiercer," the battlefield is especially daunting, as it tests the sensibilities of American moviegoers in hopes they'll make the smarter decision.

Box Office Trickery

Drafthouse "Snowpiercer" screens in Burnet, TX.

This past weekend, Radius set the stage for "Snowpiercer" by partnering with Austin-based exhibitor Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, renting a train filled with over 400 ticket-paying customers, and hauling them with the filmmaker for two hours to Burnet, TX for an outdoor screening followed by a Q&A. The train was decked out with a disco car that resembled one in the film, as well as a sushi bar, and "black jello" snacks identical to the movie's grotesque protein bars feasted on by the lower classes. Audiences didn't just get an early glimpse of "Snowpiercer"; they inhabited it.

Swept up in the experience, the crowd may not have realized that when they paid roughly $37 for the evening, they were also fueling the "Snowpiercer" box office ahead of schedule: Each ticket counted toward the movie's opening weekend gross. It was a clever means of incentivizing attendance, since it allowed the company to both promote its release and get the ball rolling on its opening weekend at once.

The scheme was the brainchild of Radius co-president Tom Quinn and Drafthouse CEO Tim League, friends going back to Quinn's days at Magnolia Pictures. Two years ago, Quinn launched Radius with Jason Janego under The Weinstein Company banner, with the intention of picking up a broader spectrum of movies as well as venturing deeper into the video-on-demand marketplace. 

Eric Kohn Bong Joon-ho and Radius-TWC's Tom Quinn at the train station in Austin.

"Snowpiercer" represents the company's biggest undertaking to date. Opening in 10 markets nationwide Friday, with no VOD date on the schedule, the movie is the closest thing to a blockbuster in limited release this summer. Settling into a lawn chair in Burnet, Quinn proudly took credit for the decision to go up against "Transformers."

"I chose to jump right into the single busiest, most crowded commercial opening weekend of the year," he said. "That's a way of saying, 'This is that movie.'"

Of course, 10 markets—Quinn wouldn't say exactly how many screens—can't directly compete with Paramount's full-scale, nationwide release for its far bigger product. "Are we going to be on 3,000 screens? No," Quinn said with a nervous laugh. "But it's the biggest theatrical launch we've done, and the performance will dictate further expansion."

But he hesitated to put too much emphasis on the commercial prospects for "Snowpiercer" while still drumming up excitement for it. "Anything I say immediately sets a barometer for what this movie is," he said. But then he couldn't resist: "I think this is a tentpole, summer action film with smarts."

Just How Big Is "Snowpiercer"?

Tilda Swinton in "Snowpiercer."

Arriving in Austin last weekend after "Snowpiercer" opened the L.A. Film Festival earlier this month, Bong was wrapping up a promotional tour that began a year ago, when his movie was released in Korea. (This week, he arrives in New York for a series of screenings to complete his journey.) In the meantime, he managed to produce a movie, "Sea Fog," which opens in Korea in August.

But on Saturday, Bong looked utterly relaxed. On the bus to the train station, the director showed off his tree tattoo and casually snapped photos of the Austin neighborhoods as they passed by. "Wes Anderson went to school here, right?" asked Dooho Choi, Bong's producer and translator. "And Robert Rodriguez!" the director added with a broad smile.

The 44-year-old Bong is himself no slouch. Along with "The Host," his detective mystery "Memories of a Murder" is widely considered one of the best of its kind. His last feature, "Mother," was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival. But "Snowpiercer" was a major feat for him — made for $39 million, it was the biggest budget production in Korean history, and received a wide release there. In America, of course, the scale is different.

"This movie has two identities," Bong said. "Because it cost so much in Korea, there was a lot of pressure. But in the states, it has a mid-range budget." He noticed the biggest contrast in the promotional efforts. "Chris Evans goes on TV talk shows and talks about it as a small, but unique, film," Bong said, sounding vaguely annoyed with his muscular leading man. "Compared to 'The Avengers' or 'Captain America,' yes, it's small. But in Japan and China, it's considered pretty large. I just want to chase a good story and make a film that interests me." 

At one point, however, "Snowpiercer" was on the verge of arriving in the United States in a version that Bong would never approve.

The Weinstein Conundrum

Harvey Weinstein

Up until "Snowpiercer" had its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, reports circulated that Weinstein wanted to cut 20 minutes. After a series of test screenings and various internal discussions, Weinstein agreed to open Bong's version in a more limited release and passed the reins to Radius.

"As soon as I realized that The Weinstein Company was going to release this film, I prepared myself mentally," Bong said, recalling how he read Peter Biskind's chronicle of Miramax's rise, "Down and Dirty Pictures," for research. "There are so many famous stories about Harvey Weinstein. I tried every way to preserve shots and keep my vision intact. I'm very thankful they decided to keep this version."

Quinn said the decision was a practical one. "I wasn't directly involved in the discussions," he said, "but at the end of the day, this is a Korean-financed film with a Korean director, so we wanted to proceed with the Korean cut." Quinn, who released Bong's two previous features at Magnolia, gladly tackled the assignment. "It was destiny," Bong said.

Quinn recalled that, after he bought "The Host" at Magnolia, he received a call from The Weinstein Company offering to buy the movie from him. "I was like, 'I appreciate it, but we're good,'" Quinn said. "So I think Harvey had been tracking Bong for a long time."

Nearly an hour shorter than the new "Transformers" movie, "Snowpiercer" is hardly out of whack with American moviegoers' sensibilities. With a series of grisly showdowns and plenty of CGI, it's a claustrophobic action movie that's literally in forward motion from start to finish.

If anything, it's the international components that give "Snowpiercer" an aura of distinction. In addition to Evans and Swinton, the cast also includes Korean star Kang-ho Song as a shifty engineer who only speaks in his native language, and various other nationalities come and go over the course of the journey. Bong said that was designed to take the focus away from specific countries, unlike his previous films, which delve into the specifics of Korean society. "If a person from Norway saw the film, they wouldn't be able to tell these actors were Korean," he said. "Just Asian. I didn't add specific details of them eating kimchi or singing 'Gangnam Style.' This story is not about ethnicity — it's about class."

But Will U.S. Audiences Jive With It?

"At this moment, I feel great," Bong said, exiting the train to an open field in Burnet as the sun began to set. Chowing down on barbecue, he watched from the sidelines as "Drive" director Nicolas Winding Refn — randomly in town to shoot a commercial — introduced the evening to an eager response. Facing the audience, Bong recalled watching "Marathon Man" at age 11 and deciding he wanted to direct movies, then announced his satisfaction with the way "Snowpiercer" turned out. "This is a Korean movie made with American actors, but it belongs to the world of cinema," he said.

By the end of the night, League looked triumphant. "We like to think we know what we're doing," he said. He had good reason to beam: The Rolling Roadshow provided Radius with a marketing boost, gave Bong a nice contrast to the red carpet hoopla, and provided a neat alternative to the traditional moviegoing experience in one fell swoop. After midnight, as the train made its way back to Austin, Bong huddled in a VIP train near the front while drunken audiences crowded into disco car, still high on the movie's unruly energy.

"Snowpiercer" may not satisfy everyone. Its wild, meandering plot makes it difficult to invest in the peculiar stakes -- as the train residents battle ahead in the hopes of reaching some uncertain future near the front, their mission isn't nearly as compelling as their determination. But the collage of events distinguishes "Snowpiercer" from less adventurous genre efforts made on a similar scale. Veering from physical altercations between the lower classes and the train's authorities to grim monologues about cannabalism and social control, "Snowpiercer" has a jittery quality that makes it the most inventive form of escapism this summer. Virtually every five minutes, the palette shifts and the tone runs wild. With a more sophisticated range of experiences than any recent Hollywood production, it never bores you.

Which begs the question: Was Harvey right? Is "Snowpiercer" too confusing for the conservative tastes of American viewers?

There's no easy answer. But last weekend's audiences offered a glimmer of hope as Bong snuck iPhone shots of the screen while chatting with his producers and downing beers. When the sizable portion of the audience cheered during one particularly violent payoff, Bong chuckled and leaned forward. The spirited Q&A afterward sealed the deal: For over 400 ticket-paying viewers in Burnet, TX, watching the movie under the stars and surrounded by chirping crickets, "Snowpiercer" was already a hit.

This article is related to: Features, Snowpiercer, Harvey Weinstein, RADiUS-TWC, Tom Quinn, Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse, Joon-ho Bong