In the spring of 2012, a few months after filming The Avengers and just before reprising his role as Captain America for a third time, Chris Evans played the rebel who leads a ragtag, rag-wearing lower-class community in a revolt against their decadent overseers in Bong Joon-Ho’s English-language debut Snowpiercer (released in the U.S. in 2014). For the film’s South Korean director, the challenge was finding the right clothes and camera angles to hide the actor’s Marvel superhero physique in order to assure his credibility as the malnourished leader of the revolutionaries. This problem provides an apt metaphor for the Weinstein Co.’s marketing and distribution of the movie. Analyzing the Weinsteins’ involvement with and public statements about Bong’s film and its intended audience in trade publications, I will argue that the distribution company used a discourse of distinction built on aesthetic value judgments in order to rationalize and justify decisions based on financial considerations. Their challenge was finding the right language to disguise the sci-fi action blockbuster as a small indie movie better fitted for online and on demand distribution rather than a wide theatrical release.
Media scholar John Caldwell considers the artifacts circulated among production communities “deep texts…[,] plays of cultural competence and critical-theoretical engagement [which] stand simultaneously as corporate strategies, as forms of cultural and economic capital integral to media professional communities, and as the means by which contemporary media industries work to rationalize their operations” (“Critical Industrial Practice” 102-07). Trade texts, for Caldwell, are a fundamental component in the way the media industry makes sense of itself to itself. Elsewhere, he writes,
“The worlds of film/video workers are organized and rationalized around an extensive set of secondary symbolic texts, trade stories, pedagogical rituals, and technologies. All of these rituals and artifacts serve to manage and inflect the social relations and labor activities, even as they [have] enabled each craft and association to collectively imagine itself as a community.” (Production Cultures 341).
In other words, stories that film professionals tell about their labor play a direct role in reproducing the conditions in which that labor occurs, thus making those conditions imaginable within and as a production community.
Derek Johnson, analyzing the discourse surrounding the brief independence of Marvel Studios’ production in an age of media convergence, writes how “for such reorganization to make sense to established Hollywood production cultures, the industrial shifts implied by Marvel’s independence had to be managed on a self-reflexive, discursive level.. [t]hrough specific trade narratives that constructed Marvel’s cinematic independence as commonsense” (2). I will argue that the trade stories that TWC executives and employers have deployed to legitimate their distribution strategies on Snowpiercer similarly worked to mediate and manage the company’s release plan and disguise a (highly profitable) marketing ploy as common sense by bolstering a specific taste hierarchy. While only a few years ago such a limited theatrical release (initially only eight theaters in New York and Los Angeles), accompanied a mere two weeks later by digital distribution might have signaled a failure, today such strategies are all part of a plan to increase profits for niche films.
The deep texts of trade stories, therefore, offer a unique tool for examining how the discourse designating Snowpiercer as an “independent” or “niche” product was used to support, legitimize, and give industrial and cultural meaning to a strategic course of action motivated by bottom-line business considerations. Yannis Tzioumakis has noted how the label independent is an important industrial category that has more to do with finance than formal qualities; sometimes it is “the only way of marketing esoteric or idiosyncratic films to an increasingly large audience” (282). As Dana Harris pragmatically put it in Variety over a decade ago—and her comments have become only more applicable with time,
“In a product-saturated marketplace, you don’t sell tickets on the strength of a director’s oeuvre or a stellar review in the New York Times. These days, ya gotta have a niche. The studios’ current game plan for making money in the art business combines opportunism with a yogic flexibility. Specialty divisions can mean slick urban comedies like Brown Sugar or Deliver Us From Eva. Or unabashed crowd-pleasers like Bend It Like Beckham. Or Hong Kong action movies, or even foreign-lingo romance. To put it another way, “niche” is a nice way of saying ‘anything we can sell.’”
It is a widely accepted fact that “Hollywood hates a movie that it can’t easily pigeonhole,” so when the Weinsteins bought the distribution rights to Bong’s movie, they weren’t exactly sure whether they were dealing with a mainstream dystopian epic or a specialty, art-house production aimed at a niche audience, which caused an almost two-year delay in its North American release (Maio 183). When the movie finally did come out, through the Weinsteins’ boutique distribution arm RADiUS, critics were similarly confused, a typical review calling Snowpiercer “an exciting, Michael Bay-sized blockbuster that also was infused with an indie-film aesthetic, a feel for true human intimacy, and a sense of the tragic,” and a film “as much about philosophical reflections of an age of social and moral collapse as it is about blockbuster-friendly, CGI-enhanced sequences” (Derakhshani, Tsui). Such contradictions in terms perfectly befit “indie mogul” Harvey Weinstein, the company’s co-chief, who seems to have invented the “independent blockbuster” as head of “mini-major” Miramax in the 1980s and ’90s. Surprisingly, Snowpiercer’s star-studded cast, action setpieces, and post-apocalyptic futurism were significantly downplayed in trade stories, in favor of the movie’s more “artistic,” “subversive,” “eccentric,” “quirky,” and, of course, “independent” qualities.
Geoff King situates his understanding of “independence” in Hollywood at the intersection of individual films’ industrial conditions of production, formal/aesthetic strategies, and relationship to broader cultural, political, or ideological landscape. He sees two of the defining characteristics of the independent sector as (1) the willingness to complicate and transgress genre while still mobilizing familiar conventions to some extent (165-195); and (2) the expression of alternative social perspectives which question or critique dominant values (197-201). It comes as no surprise that the traits emphasized in trade articles about Snowpiercer were those that “derail[ed] both cinematic expectations and the status quo” (Carlton), “drip[ped] with political messages about class warfare” (Vetter); “brilliantly add[ed] politics and social realism onto a genre picture” (Lyttelton); and “veered away from mainstream narrative tropes” (Tsui).
What clearly emerges from this type of discourse is the fact that, regardless of the economic realities of the industry, the term “independent” is often used to describe not a mode of production, financing or distribution, as much as a form of thinking and cultural appreciation, “suggestive of a romantic vision of filmic productivity” and of a certain guarantee of quality (Berra 9). Whereas in the past the designation simply defined works that were not affiliated with the major studios, today the label carries with it a cultural significance that implies a certain taste and a certain target audience. During the summer that also saw the release of yet another Michael Bay extravaganza, the label independent which was attached to Snowpiercer to distinguish it from the mindless, crass commercialism and harmless entertainment of the major studio blockbusters is a signifier of prestige and status. Variety’s Justin Chang directly compared the “marvelously imaginative” Snowpiercer to the “brain dead” Transformers 4, concluding that Bong’s film was “provocative… serious-minded foreign fare,” the “work of an auteur” with “multicultural aspirations,” “artistic heft,” and “genuine moral vision”
Pierre Bourdieu, in his work on cultural production and taste cultures, establishes a theory of the cultural field which might prove useful to the discussion of Snowpiercer within the culture of distinction set up by the discourse surrounding TWC’s distribution of the film. “There is an economy of cultural goods,” Bourdieu writes in the introduction to Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, “but it has a specific logic” (1). He sees the cultural field as “the site of the antagonistic coexistence of two modes of production and circulation obeying inverse logics,” split up between the field of restricted production, where profit is not the ultimate objective, and large-scale production, which is a purely capitalist enterprise. The anti-economy side of the spectrum, where values and practices correspond to the discourse of art for art’s sake, he calls the “autonomous” pole, while the “heteronomous” pole seeks economic dominance (The Rules of Art 142). This economic aim means that the cultural work that is conducted within the field of large-scale production is commonly of less artistic value—or at least is perceived as such—than that which is conducted within the field of restricted production.
The lines between restricted and large-scale production are increasingly blurred in today’s film industry, with producers and distributors in the independent sector finding themselves operating as “mini-majors,” struggling to balance cultural credibility with the hard bottom line principles of Hollywood studios. Cinema autonomous of the field of economic power is what Bourdieu would refer to as “the field of cultural production, where the only audience aimed at is other producers,” meaning that the economic failure of a work is a sign of its artistic success (The Field of Cultural Production 39). This is the image of independent filmmakers “with stories to tell and axes to grind, working against the grain of corporate-sponsored cinema to bring their vision to fruition” (Berra 16). Of course such a cinema cannot exist within a system made up of studios, distributors, exhibitors, and promotional media that filmmakers must rely on for their work to reach the public. As Berra writes, “no film-maker or producer is truly ‘independent’ in that they cannot exist separately from the field of economic power” (15). Thus, no film can be truly “independent,” but the label, although misleading, works to increase the symbolic capital of films designated as such, regardless that the aim of their creators is ultimately financial profit. Marketing a film as “independent” serves the purpose of cultural legitimization, even while commercial considerations gain more and more weight in the art cinema niche, as De Valck points out in his article on international film festivals (76-78).
Bourdieu argues for an inverse relationship between symbolic capital and commercial capital in the realm of art. Writing about the literary field at the end of the nineteenth century, he notes how the “hierarchy among genres (and authors) according to specific criteria of peer judgement is almost exactly the inverse of the hierarchy according to commercial success” (The Rules of Art 114). Prestige, then, is placed in direct opposition to economic profit, and reaching a “broad audience [le grand public] … means, as the pejorative connotations of the expression indicate, exposing oneself to the discredit attached to commercial success” (The Rules of Art 116).
The same form of thinking holds sway over art-house and independent films, although the financial realities might not support it. Tzioumakis points out how independent films are seen by the public as examples of “cinematic art that dealt with real issues and refused to compromise aesthetically, thematically, and ideologically in exchange for a higher box office take” (282). This perception, however unfounded, has helped the Weinstein brothers throughout their entire career. While at Miramax, Harvey used the independent label that signified a certain level of quality to the cinephile set while he was actually turning the company into an internationally recognized brand that became shorthand for middlebrow escapism. In Indie, Inc.: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s, Perren points out that the company was the most publicized and profitable distributor of low-budget, critically acclaimed indie films that expanded beyond a core art-house crowd to attract a wider audience. Bourdieu claims that there are three distinct markets:
“Firstly, there is the specific principle of legitimacy, i.e., the recognition granted by the set of producers who produce for other producers… i.e., by the autonomous, self-sufficient world of ‘art for art’s sake’…. Secondly, there is the principle of legitimacy corresponding to the ‘bourgeois’ taste and to the consecration bestowed by the dominant fractions of the dominant class…. Finally, there is the principle of legitimacy which advocates call ‘popular,’ i.e., the consecration bestowed by the choice of ordinary consumers, the ‘mass audience.’ (The Field of Cultural Production 50-51).
It would appear that Miramax operated within the first of the three markets in its pre-Disney incarnation, specializing in highbrow product for an elite community of artists and critics. However, the company succeeded by taking works from that community and promoting them towards the second, and even third, of Bourdieu’s markets. Under Disney, Miramax developed into the preeminent contemporary specialty or indie division, distributing niche-oriented films and exploiting discourses of independence that appealed to those possessing greater cultural capital. As Perren notes,
“The company broadened the audience of these movies by portraying them as what Hollywood has to offer and more: full of sex, violence, and risky content. This marketing sleight of hand, in which the films were at once similar and different from Hollywood, helped Miramax carve out an often financially lucrative and aesthetically viable space for independent cinema…” (“Sex, Lies and Marketing” 37).
Over the past 25 years, the Weinstein brothers have been honing their marketing mix at Miramax and then TWC to target specific audiences, but to do so in a manner that appeared tasteful and unobtrusive. As Bourdieu observes, “The art trader cannot serve his ‘discovery’ unless he applies all his conviction, which rules out ‘sordidly commercial’ maneuvers, manipulation and the ‘hard sell,’ in favor of the softer, more discreet forms of ‘public relations’ (which are themselves a highly euphemized form of publicity)…” (The Field of Cultural Production 76). Of course the niche market is not opposed to marketing, but cannot be reached with the blanket promotion practiced by the bigger studios. Instead, the Weinsteins take advantage of their brand name and the values that name is supposed to represent—“quality, class, culture, at once traditional and progressive” and promote their films through culturally legitimized forums such as film festivals, using discourse that sets up a culture of distinction (Berra 163).
In November 2012, when TWC bought the rights to Snowpiercer, Harvey framed the film as a blockbuster, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “With a stellar cast led by Chris Evans, we look forward to bringing this action-packed thriller to audiences worldwide” (Siegel, “Weinstein Co. Nabs Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Snowpiercer’”). Before long, however, the movie was deemed “too long, too violent and too weird for an American audience” (Doyle). According to some reports, the company feared “the film wouldn’t be understood by audiences in Iowa and Oklahoma” (Doyle). Harvey, nicknamed “Scissorhands” for his tendency to tamper with directors’ final cuts, demanded that Snowpiercer was re-edited into a shorter, mass-audience-friendly version, that some of the foreign language parts got cut, and that a voiceover was added at the end to reduce the ambiguity. Bong refused to make any changes to the film, and news of the dispute soon went public, culminating in a November 2013 incident at the Museum of Modern Art that landed on Page Six of the New York Post. As soon as word got out that Weinstein wasn’t supporting the director’s cut—and had tested a version with twenty minutes chopped out—fans as well as the filmmaker expressed dismay. As one reviewer put it, “To alter [the film] would be something close to vandalism” (Vineyard).
Seeing that he wasn’t going to get his way, Harvey, “ever the spin doctor,” started supporting the original version of the movie while arguing against theatrical release (Mottram 78). “When I saw the… very artistic flourishes that we all love,” he told Indiewire in July 2014, “I thought, ‘It’s not for a wide audience, it’s a smart movie for a smarter audience’” (Ebiri). This provided the perfect justification to release the film on demand, while flattering potential viewers and framing their interest in the film as a mark of good taste. As Bourdieu writes, “To the socially recognized hierarchy of the arts, and within each of them, of genres, schools or periods, corresponds a social hierarchy of consumers. This predisposes tastes to function as markers of ‘class’” (Distinction 1).
Taking up this discourse of distinction, audience studies have shown that the crowd that frequents independent-sector fare is made up of mostly young, educated, “inherently and eternally fashionable” selective viewers with disposable income who are looking for entertainment of a socially and intellectually provocative nature (Berra 181-185). Perhaps not incidentally, the above demographic coincides with that of audiences who are likely to watch films on demand, through subscription services like Netflix, set-top boxes (Roku, Apple TV, Google Chromecast or a cable provider), or digital platforms like iTunes (Sciullo).
Digital platforms have been especially adept at linking audiences across the world and facilitating the flow of foreign products into the Western market as consumers are turning to the internet and video on demand (VOD) services for cultural consumption that transcends borders and features a diverse range of international offerings or niche content (Iordanova 5-12). Stuart Cunningham and Jon Silver note how Hollywood’s “increasingly well-resourced release strategies for its blockbusters consistently roadblock screens for films from the rest of the world” (34). Technology helps level the playing field, making the sharing, watching, and talking about films more easily accessible to larger and larger groups of people, especially viewers who position themselves in opposition to “the Hollywood hegemony and the chauvinism of the classic art-house canon” by seeking out indie or less commercial films online (Slater).
With the growth of VOD, the available services, platforms and content have become more varied, allowing viewers more choice in what they watch, when, and on what device. As Sharon Strover and William Moner write, “from the traditional television set to pocket-size mobile devices to laptop computers, people now have a surfeit of choices available for entertainment services” (234). Digital options offer immediacy and ease of access, multiple screen capabilities, and increased portability on mobile devices. While historically, film studios would release films in theater first, where they would stay exclusively for a few months before making their way onto the auxiliary markets of DVD, Blu-ray, on demand, pay-per-view, and finally, television networks, this “inflexible succession of hierarchically ordered windows of exhibition and formats” has been “radically undermined by new technologies” (Iordanova 1).As far back as 2004 Amanda Lotz had pointed out that industry practices were adapting in order to accommodate the growth of the home entertainment sector, with strategies to increase the availability of content on multiple platforms becoming more common. “The rhetoric of industry leaders,” she wrote, “shifted from advocating efforts to prevent change to accepting the inevitability of industrial adjustment” (cited in Nelson 63). In the decade since, Hollywood has become increasingly open to the idea of digital distribution as the future of the home-video business and has started experimenting with release windows to provide greater access and added value to media content.
As soon as the decision to release Snowpiercer on VOD was reached, TWC quickly turned to emphasizing the consumer benefits of digital platforms by framing the distribution model in a discourse of openness, choice, control, and ease of access. Tom Quinn, co-president of TWC and a veteran of Magnolia Pictures, told Entertainment Weekly that the company’s philosophy does not mean thinking literally big: “This is completely uncharted territory but it’s 100 percent within the consumer’s control how you want to see this film,” says Quinn. “That’s what our goal is at RADiUS: A screen is a screen is a screen and it’s your choice where you see it” (Bahr). Executives at other companies chimed in to show their support. Mark Cuban, whose media holdings include Magnolia, said, “Getting people into a theater is hard and expensive. Getting people to hit a button on their remote is a lot easier” (Sciullo).
A look at the numbers makes it clear that TWC’s unusual distribution plan was motivated by economics just as much as, if not more than, the desire to make the film easily available to its intended audience. Starting in the mid-2000 and into the early 2010s, studios have been shrinking theatrical windows in an attempt to maximize revenue streams and enhance total returns. So far, there is no indication that a single timing strategy would work for all films, especially when factoring in specific box offices and seasonality of particular titles. As Elissa Nelson notes, the type of film (e.g. blockbuster, independent) can help determine release order (72). “Situations that involve indie, documentary, foreign and other niche films actively embrace the new digital and on-line tools available,” which offers direct access to core audiences at the same time that it reduces marketing and exhibition costs (Nelson 72). In the independent sector distributors have been more willing to experiment with simultaneous theatrical and VOD release.
In the U.S., Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble collapsed the theatrical window in 2005 when it was released in theaters, on DVD and cable at the same time. In 2011, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia profitably premiered on VOD before its theatrical release (65). But it was J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (also 2011) which became the poster child for early VOD success. Shot in only 17 days with a $3 million budget by a first-time director-producer, it was released in theaters and on demand on the same day and ended up earning an estimated $19.5 million (Sciullo). In contrast, Children of Men and Drive, the “two movies in recent memory” that, according to Quinn, fit [Snowpircer’s] review profile almost exactly” disappointed at the U.S. box office, proving that great reviews, action elements, and star power don’t always guarantee success in theaters (Siegel, “Radius Co-Chiefs on VOD Stretegy”). “As good as [Snowpiercer] is, it would have been a tough sell at the box office,” says Gitesh Pandya, a researcher of Box Office Guru. “They have tremendous competition from other summer action movies,” he continues (Ebiri).
Following Snowpiercer’s overwhelming success TWC is taking steps to create a new language around digital platform revenues. The film was TWC’s highest-earning VOD release, skyrocketing to the top of iTunes and other media platforms in less than a day after launching, earning almost double what it did in theaters over its first weekend on demand, and an impressive $3.8 million over its first two weeks. The financial benefits, however, do not stop here. Whereas studios typically end up taking home 50 percent of a film’s box office, the VOD split is closer to 75 percent, which means distributors can earn a bigger percentage of every dollar spent without having to spend as much on advertising (Pomerantz). “From a layman’s perspective these numbers are possibly not that interesting,” Quinn admitted. “But from an industry perspective, it’s a game changer” (Bahr). “I think this kind of release pattern is the future of film distribution but not for every film,” the executive told Forbes. “I do think wide release theatrical works very effectively for certain tent pole movies,” he continued (Pomerantz). But for films in the $20 million to $60 million budget range, an at-home release starts to make more and more financial sense. “We joke that we’re in an industry built on perceived success,” Quinn said. “But at some point, you need to have actual success to survive” (Ebiri).
Without TWC’s strategic framing of Snowpiercer as an independent and niche film, such financial success on VOD—and perhaps even releasing the film on demand in the first place— would have been impossible. The trade articles and interviews that the company put out between 2012 and 2014 were instrumental in legitimizing its distribution strategy to media professionals and viewers alike by situating the film within a taste hierarchy that assured it would reach its intended audience. Even though Snowpiercer can be considered a fun, futuristic action blockbuster as easily as Harvey Weinstein fits the bill of an old-Hollywood studio mogul, neither description would have justified the film’s marketing and distribution. Instead, Bong’s film was turned into an artistic indie and Harvey tried to maintain the carefully constructed and curated image of a self-proclaimed maverick, risk-taking patron of the arts.
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