Summer — ‘tis the season of the blockbuster, or so Hollywood hopes, right? But who knew a blockbuster would sweep through the beloved Boston-area art house, the Brattle Theatre?
In case you were sleeping or don't believe me, it happened, lines around the block and sold-out shows, night after night.
In Tinseltown there are formulas to these things, but it's not all that secret or complex: something old (remakes and sequels to money makers), something borrowed (TV shows, young adult hits) or something novel (let's pair up Walter White and a lovely French actress with a giant CGI lizard). Many of these endeavors cost well over the $100 million mark and while they receive poor to tepid critical reaction, they tend to turn a buck in the long run when you factor in foreign releases and Video on Demand (VOD). But every summer there's always a wild card, that offbeat something cooked with a modest budget (just tens of millions) that comes out of left field and hits bigger than most expect it would.
"Lucy" is one such example. Made by French provocateur Luc Besson through a collaboration of European outlets. The gonzo sci-fi crime thriller was modestly released stateside by Paramount in first run theaters and made more in its first week in the U.S. than its entire budget (of $40 million). Of course, having the actress du jour (Scarlett Johansson) and a ready made audience (those who love Besson for his edgy, cultish works; "Le Femme Nikita," "The Professional" and "The Fifth Element") helps, but not always does such pedigree guarantee big box office biz or fiscal love from the mighty studio machine.
Take the case of "Snowpiercer," the bleak futuristic depiction of the remnants of a post-apocalyptic society living on a super Acela after the battle with global warming has gone bust and Earth is little more than a giant ice cube. Directed by Joon-ho Bong, the Korean auteur behind "The Host" and "Mother," making his first English language film with an international cast featuring Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell ("Billy Elliot"), Octavia Spencer ("The Help"), Kang-ho Song ("The Host") and Captain America himself, Chris Evans.
Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who has always had a reputation for tweaking the product (his fingerprints are all over "Gangs of New York" and "Next Stop Wonderland"), wanted Bong to dumb-down the film to broaden its appeal. Bong refused and Weinstein sent "Snowpiercer" off to his Radius/TWC subsidiary for a smaller foot-print/alternative release.
What that means is, no mass marketing and a soon-after-theatrical-release, or simultaneous, VOD issuance. No big movie chain like AMC or Regal wants to touch such a film as the prospect of a looming VOD date tends to kill the box office draw (the thought being that viewers will just stay at home and stream the film for less) and that's when the Brattle jumped in. "Snowpiercer" had already done killer business in Korea and France.
With acumen and luck, Brattle program director Ned Hinkle booked the film. The cherished Harvard Square institution got in a week scot-free as the VOD date was set for one week later. and the film wasn't playing anywhere else in Boston.
The decision bore box office gold as fans of Bong, dystopian futurescapes and the hunky actor who happens to also play "Captain America," lined up around the block.
The Brattle, which is a repertory theater, never runs a single film longer than a week if it's something special. "That's not our mission," Hinkle said, "nor is it something we're looking to get in the business of."
Through a combination of big-studio fear of VOD poison, a ready-made market and agile art house programing, a star was born. "In the past 15 years, the landscape has changed a lot," Hinkle says of film and film distribution. "There's more product, more gems in the rough and more to sort through." And most don't fly so easily. Hinkle calls "Snowpiercer" "an exception," and well he should, it's one of the five highest grossing films ever to tally up at the Brattle's BO.
Later in the summer, undertaking a similar film rollout with a nigh VOD date, the Brattle exhibited "Hellion," a coming-of-age saga staring “Breaking Bad” Emmy winner Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis. The film wasn't the smash "Snowpiercer" was, not even close. In fact, it was a disappointment. It didn't have "'Piercer"'s ready made audience and zestful fanfare and Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," a film much in the same vein and widely anticipated, opened at the same time.
Given the Brattle's overall mission though, finding such “gems: is not as much a critical task as a labor of love to enhance the filmgoing experience in Boston. "Boston is a market where people want to see movies on the screen," Hinkle says. "VOD is great for smaller markets where there are no art houses."
VOD has indirectly, unwittingly created a quiet niche for independent cinemas. Back in 2005 Steven Soderbergh dipped his toe in the water, releasing "Bubble," a little ditty of a film about the goings on in a pokey Midwest town with mostly nonprofessional actors, through VOD, DVD and theatrical simultaneously. The film did not do so well (it made about $250,000 and cost $1.6 million to make), but Soderbergh has always worked outside the system and has never been afraid to do so. Ditto Lars Von Trier, whose controversial "Nymphomaniac" movies were simultaneously released theatrically (Kendall Square) and on VOD this summer.
Studio support for foreign and experimental cinema appears to be on the wane as far as the traditional roadmap goes. David Lynch, who wooed audiences with the weird and the wild in the ‘80s and ‘90s ("Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks"), had a hard time getting "Inland Empire" released in 2006 — it played the Brattle and did well both critically and financially. And to promote the release of "Upstream Color," which also did well at the Brattle last year, director Shane Carruth took his psychological thriller on an art house book tour of sorts.
Such endeavors can mean extra legs for such orphaned or limited-release films. Back in 2002, the historical fantasy, "The Russian Ark," opened at the Brattle and then, after solid returns, "moved over" to the Kendall Square Cinema. "Snowpiercer," too, found second life at the Coolidge Corner Theatre and Somerville Theatre after rocking the BO at the Brattle. Still, the film, which has been hailed critically and likely to make year-end top-ten lists, only banked about $4-5 million in this country compared with the $80 million in its initial foreign release.
VOD is here for the foreseeable future. How things evolve over the next 15 years is anybody's guess. But it’s clear that independent theaters have become more viable in the era of downloads and $15 tickets to the 20-screen cineplex formulaically playing the same film in five theaters. Not only do they offer diverse and historically retrospective programming, but also cheaper prices, the big-screen experience, and a sense of community (with beer and wine to boot).