Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja” debuted on Netflix and in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, leaving subscribers to decide whether to watch the movie at home for free or pay extra to see it on the big screen. While distributors have been releasing films using the day-and-date model for more than a decade, “Okja” actually has the potential to be a global blockbuster, putting it in an entirely different category than movies that get dumped on streaming platforms the same day as beginning a limited theatrical release. The Cannes Film Festival official selection also cost a reported $50 million to make, and comes from an acclaimed auteur filmmaker.
But unlike so many movies made on a similar scale, “Okja” isn’t being promoted as a big theatrical release, per Netflix’s custom. However, that didn’t stop some people from seeking out the experience.
At downtown Manhattan’s luxury dine-in movie theater iPic, one of the few cinemas showing “Okja” on its opening day, tickets range from $16 to $32 per person depending on the showtime and type of seat (some come with reclining chairs and personal pillows and blankets). Wednesday’s 6:30 pm “Okja” screening was 56 percent full, according to the theater, while the 3:15 showing was 19 percent full. The first screening, at 11:45 am, did not sell any tickets.
But it was a totally different picture uptown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where there was strong interest in the film on Wednesday. “We saw a great response from our audience yesterday on its opening day, particularly from students,” a spokesperson for the organization said in an email.
Official box office figures were not immediately available for both locations; those numbers are typically released by distributors, not venues, and Netflix did not respond to requests for numbers. That’s hardly a surprise, given that the company almost never reveals details about its subscriber base, either.
Needless to say, The Film Society and iPic have distinctly different reasons for showing the movie. Whereas iPic has a partnership with Netflix that lets the streaming giant show its films on the same day as its online releases, effectively allowing Netflix movies to qualify for the Oscars, the Film Society is trying to attract as large a theatrical audience for the movie as possible.
Cannes Film Festival
So what led Netflix subscribers to pay a premium and see the movie at iPic on opening day?
“He’s my favorite Korean director, so I wanted to see it on the big screen,” said Kate Delp, a financial technology professional who subscribes to Netflix. She added that she enjoyed the movie, and was making her first trip to the iPic theater.
The latest project from the “Snowpiercer” and “Host” director centers around a young girl (newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun) who travels from South Korea to New York City to save her pet super-pig from the clutches of an evil corporation. Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal and Lily Collins co-star.
One audience member who also liked the movie and was visiting New York from South Korea said most Netflix subscribers she knows primarily watch TV shows on the streaming service. “I use Netflix, but I don’t watch movies on it,” said Soo Yang , an advertising professional. “I usually watch ‘House of Cards’ and other TV series…Going to the theater means a lot to us in Korea.”
Elina Lee, a schoolteacher also visiting from South Korea, said she sees movies in theaters “a lot” at home, and was very impressed with Joon Ho’s latest film. “I really respect him,” she said. One Netflix subscriber who rarely sees movies in the theater said he wanted to see “Okja” on the big screen because he was an extra in the movie. “I thought it was awesome,” said programmer Tyler Blocksberg. “It’s great to see movies in the theater, I just don’t usually go.”
An audience member who doesn’t subscribe to Netflix said he probably would have seen “Okja” in the theater even if he did use the streaming service. “It’s better to see it in the theater,” said Brian Lee, a web designer. “Because of all the graphics, with the big screen, I think that the emotion of the Okja pig comes out more.”
Despite being a “meat lover,” Lee said he decided not to order a meat dish at iPic due to the subject matter of the film. He added that the film was very “touching” in the way that it provoked thought about pets. “I had never thought about animals being so precious,” he said. “I have two cats at home.”