Railing against the international release date conspiracy

Will we ever get Snowpiercer in a UK cinema? James ponders the international release date conspiracy...

I really want to see Snowpiercer. Has anyone here seen Snowpiercer? Fine, has anyone seen any news or sign as to when we might all get to see Snowpiercer? Will we ever see Snowpiercer? Is Snowpiercer actually a real thing that exists?

Apparently, yes, Snowpiercer is indeed a real movie and people have seen, and loved, Bong Joon-ho’s latest feature – an adaptation of the 1980s French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette. It’s a sci-fi drama set in a post-apocalyptic future in which the last human survivors of the new Ice Age live on a train powered by a perpetual-motion engine. The train is segregated and structured with a rigid class system (the elite at the front and the poor in the rear carriages) and altogether it impresses itself as a fantastically unique concept that promises stimulating style, substance and spectacle.

But wait, there’s more! Snowpiercer has a star-studded international ensemble cast – Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell being just a few of the big Western names. It also comes from the director of the superb, soulful Seoul-set monster movie The Host so, in total, there are a lot of reasons to go and see this film. The cinemagoers and critics that have gone to see it have been near unanimous in their praise.

Snowpiercer was a mega-hit in Joon-ho’s native Korea where it broke several box office records and become the tenth highest grossing domestic film of all time. Beyond Asian marketplaces, the dystopian epic received rave receptions at film festivals and with regular audiences when it finally landed in their territories. At the time of writing, Snowpiercer has a ‘95% Fresh’ rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website and its page is a red hot collection of enthusiastic words from a diverse array of respectable-but-normally-hard-to-please critics.

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So, yes, it’s a real film and I really want to see it. When will I see it? I have no idea. Snowpiercer was released on 3rd August 2013 in South Korea. Nearly three months later, on 30th October, it made its debut in France – the source of the source material. From there it gradually travelled around the globe and that’s a staggered journey that’s still in progress. This train never made it to the UK though, and we’re still waiting for its unscheduled arrival and wondering whether it’s ever going to come. Waiting for trains is such a drag. 

The hold-up undoubtedly has a whole lot to do with international distributor Harvey Weinstein’s hassling and intention to release a ‘simpler’ cut version in English-speaking territories. Popular fury put paid to that notion and Joon-ho’s uncut original vision eventually surfaced in American arthouse theatres and subsequently in wider mainstream US cinemas at the end of June.

Over this side of the Atlantic and back in Britain, however, we still have no Snowpiercer in any shape or form. All we can do is wait or order up an import blu-ray or DVD from some foreign land or pirate connection. Personally, I’d rather pass on paying out for the latter and get the absolutely authentic, full-immersion experience at the cinema.

I have an Italian friend who got that experience back in February earlier this year. In the spring he asked me if I’d seen what he described as one of the best sci-fi films released lately. I replied that no, I hadn’t seen it and said exactly the same thing when I went to visit him in the summer.

At this rate I’ll have the same response when I go and visit him later this autumn, though this time I’ll be travelling to Ireland to catch him. He moved there because I recommended Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and he couldn’t stand waiting until the end of October when it will finally show itself inside in select Italian theatres. He saw Boyhood in Dublin recently and thought it was “genius”, so I guess that’s a happy ending with a good-hearted, intelligent and passionate hero overcoming a vexing, all-powerful international conspiracy, right?

On reflection, I realise that this particular hero and a great many geeks have suffered as a result of their anticipatory enthusiasm. As much as I rail against the absence of Snowpiercer and sometimes frustrating delays in Hollywood movies making it to my local cinema, I’m well aware that British film-fans haven’t got it anywhere near as bad as others in different countries. I got first-hand proof of this truth on several occasions during my summer travels in Italy. 

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One time I found myself at a Sunday afternoon house party being introduced to friends of friends. We all really began to bond when I mentioned that I’m passionate about movies and write about them on a much-loved and highly-acclaimed English-language entertainment website. After debating the possibility of simultaneously enjoying classic Italian art masterpieces like Fellini’s and “bullshit” movies like Pacific Rim – for the record, it is possible and Pacific Rim is just as beautiful and artistic as La Dolce Vita – these gentlemen got down to brass tacks.

Casting aside his unfinished tiramisu, turning his chair towards me and leaning in close, one man beseeched me, “But tell me, we need to know! Tell me of ‘I Mercenari Tre’! What is it like?” Working out that we were talking about The Expendables 3, I answered in my best Italian (it’s iffy) that it’s good fun but that I had a problem with it because it’s a violent film that doesn’t actually show any violence.

I gave my report on how the movie I’d seen several weeks before had been constructed almost entirely of explosions and shoot-out sequences but only had two moments where the audience’s eyes observe bloodshed. The gathered ensemble were dismayed by this but still, they were pleased to get some positives and come into contact with someone who could provide insight onto the thing they were anticipating as one of their cinema events of the year. (Hopefully they’ve had the experience now, because The Expendables 3 got its Italian release on September 4th.) 

Another time I was at dinner with another group of friends – a family who I was staying with and who know that I’m passionate about movies and write about them on a much-loved and highly-acclaimed English-language entertainment website. (I have a lot of Italian friends. My wedding is going to be just like the start of The Godfather.) They asked me about which films I’d really enjoyed this year and I started to enthuse about Inside Llewyn Davis, Her and Godzilla but the teenage daughter wasn’t interested in hearing about them. She only wanted to know if The Fault in Our Stars was a good film and asked me, with desperate excitement in her eyes, if her hopes for the young adult novel adaptation were realised.

Sadly, I had to reply that I hadn’t seen The Fault in Our Stars because I’d been in Italy at the time it was released in the UK. (Understand that I spent most of my summer in Italy, seeing all my Italian friends and collecting even more so that my wedding definitely will look like the start of The Godfather.) Still, the movie was released on September 4th in Italy so she’ll have had the opportunity to see it and decide for herself, unless she changed her mind on the day and opted to go for the long-awaited Expendables 3 instead.

Both these cases stand as pretty strong reminders of just how peculiar the business of worldwide film distribution is. Sitting there like some kind of Moses or Marco Polo figure regaling tales of special secret revelations and as-yet-unseen promised visions to throngs of people hanging on my every word, I realised that something really is deeply awry in this system.

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I’ve already alluded to the distribution of movies around the world as a “vexing, all-powerful international conspiracy” and I think that’s a valid way of viewing it. The standard model doesn’t appear to be fair, rational or reasonable – even more so in the modern multimedia world of advanced technology, enhanced communication and globalised economy.

It’s a small world after all, and pop culture and innovations like the internet have made it smaller. However, when it comes to accessing art – or products, if you want to look at it in commercial terms – the world is still divided and the film industry gatekeepers maintain a gulf that favours certain consumers and relegates others to inferior status in a two-tier system.

Hollywood benefits most of all from this bizarre arrangement and strengthens its status as the dominant power in the film industry by holding the keys to the magic kingdoms. American film studios and distributors decide where and when films get shown and, as a result, reinforce that sense of superiority and supreme control.

Film fans the world over are at their mercy and, if they withhold the goods or keep us waiting, we’re liable to get quite upset. I’m upset that I haven’t seen Snowpiercer. My Italian friends are upset that they seem to get every major American blockbuster after all the other European countries.

In fact, even Italy has got the fresh Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot movie sooner than the UK, which stands as one of the final stops on the cross-continental cowabunga crawl. This delay has upset and tortured Den Of Geek writer and world number one TMNT fan Matt Edwards so much that he’s had to seek counselling and invest his entire personal fortune in Lego sets in order to find some therapeutic comfort. 

I’ve got mental images of power-tripping men – namely, Harvey Weinstein and a bunch of faceless greys wearing Galactic Empire Grand Moff garb – sitting in a Los Angeles board room, stroking Persian cats and laughing maniacally while they think of our glum, frustrated little faces. If a distributor like, say, The Weinstein Company decides not to give an individual flick a wide release – or, even worse, decides to alter it and release an edited cut – the masses can’t do much about it. We can sign online petitions, moan on social media channels and seek sympathy from foreign compatriots who haven’t been treated so callously but that’s about it.

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Putting aside my gripes and victim complex for a minute, I acknowledge that there are a few feasible practical reasons for a staggered international release structure. From the marketing standpoint, beancounters and business heads can focus their studies, handle data and pitch their product more efficiently if they’re dealing with one territory at a time and not everywhere simultaneously.

The unfolding ‘world tour’ model also allows the director and stars of films to travel widely on a trail of press junkets and premieres to promote their movie, which would be impossible if a feature has the same impact date on several continents. (Though some try, like Tom Cruise taking a ‘three premieres across two continents in twenty-four hours’ trip for Edge Of Tomorrow earlier this year.)

It’s also true that extra time may be required to dub movies for marketplaces where English isn’t the lingua franca. The same is true for translating subtitles though, generally, ‘dubs over subs’ is the popular preference. I also appreciate that review periods may be required in states where a foreign import quota is in place (for instance, China and France) or where there are hard censorship standards. In the latter case, delays are understandable if there are additional bureaucratic procedures to battle through or re-editing processes to go through in order to excise flagged material.

Those excuses get a pass, I suppose, but the fact remains that the standard distribution practises of major movie studios are out-dated and pretty unjust. Rapid technological advancements and societal shifts have clearly impacted upon a film industry that has changed radically, but in this regard it remains stuck in the past. I reckon that change is definitely needed soon and I’d say that distributors and filmmakers should look to make simultaneous worldwide release dates a priority.

If you take the increasing importance of international marketplaces into account the issue becomes even more essential. Certain underperforming Hollywood properties have turned huge profits and gone on to become mega-hits elsewhere, and you can clearly see that if you compare the domestic hauls of Battleship and Transformers: Age Of Extinction with their international box office. Treating your most valuable customers as second-class citizens and continually keeping them waiting strikes me as a really bad approach to business.

Furthermore, synchronised theatrical releases right around the globe would help combat the vast, noxious monster that is movie piracy because films would be available legally everywhere at the same time. What’s more, film enthusiasts from all over the world would be brought together more and could share the experience and subsequent debates surrounding a film simultaneously.

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The move to digitisation negates the need the physically ship a limited number massive film reels into theatres across the realms. If you’ll allow me an optimistic fantasy moment, I can envision a near-future where cinema-quality streaming files are transmitted to theatres across far corners of the Earth (and possibly outer space) to ensure that no one misses out or is left waiting for new releases.

Picture it – a world united as all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans sit down to enjoy the premiere showing of the fresh sequel at the same time; Japanese anime aficionados not having to wait a year for the latest masterpiece; my Italian friends not feeling like an afterthought.

And maybe, at some point, UK cinemas will screen Snowpiercer. Our train’s a-comin’ in someday, surely.

James Clayton is only available in some territories. He’ll get a worldwide release at some point, but writing an angry petition and sending it to the Weinstein brothers demanding his arrival in full, uncut form may speed things up a bit. Still, you’ll definitely get to see him at his wedding and all of you are invited. It’s going to be just like the start of The Godfather. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’s previous column here.

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