Radius-TWC co-president Tom Quinn told me Wednesday night’s Los Angeles Film Festival opener Snowpiercer is going to have a unique rollout when it launches against formidable competition, Transformers: Age Of Extinction, on June 27. Although that sounds like a suicide mission for another action-oriented picture, Quinn, speaking at the after-party, calls his film from Korean director Bong Joon-ho an “intelligent tentpole” made for a thinking audience who likes its thrills delivered with smarts. He says they will open in 10 markets and follow up the next week on about 150 screens. That’s chump change for the opening Paramount plans for Transformers, but Quinn and co-president Jason Janego were pumped by the LA Fest response and hope to gain attention with a series of premieres, including train trips (for a film that’s set on the ultimate train trip) to Seattle, San Francisco and Austin, plus four separate premieres across New York state. “And when this film, which only could have been made by Bong Joon-ho, opens on the 27th, the only place you will be able to see it in America is on a theater screen,” he said, emphasizing that the company — an offshoot of The Weinstein Company, which opens most of its films day-and-date with VOD — will not be making it instantly available for home viewing. “We are plotting a surprising and different way of opening this film,” he said while not committing to any specific date as to when it actually will be available on VOD.
I would guess the VOD date won’t lag too far behind, but Quinn clearly wants to get the word out first that this is a big-screen experience. You might recall that Radius released its Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom theatrically first and that worked out, as it became the top docu at the 2013 box office before hitting home screens.
After seeing the film, which also played the Berlin Film Festival, and which Harvey Weinstein pre-bought and later turned over to his Radius team (Quinn had worked with the director on The Host and Mother), I can say if ever there was a big-screen must-see, it’s this riveting story of the last humans alive after Earth is completely frozen-over and humanity wiped out — except for a few riding aboard a train that never stops and has every conceivable level of class, from its tail section to its super engine, as it continuously circles what’s left of the world. Although it is dark, grimy and claustrophobic, the director clearly knows how to make a classic train picture and his superb cast includes a hilarious Tilda Swinton, chewing the scenery like no one’s business, and Ed Harris in an extended cameo as the Master of this particular world. Both turned up for what was billed as the pic’s U.S. premiere.
Chris Evans is the star, but he sent a filmed message shown before the screening apologizing for his absence (apparently due to shooting the sequel to The Avengers in London). Co-stars Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer were also working and unable to attend, but co-stars Alison Pill, the magnificent Kang-ho Song, and Ko Asung did make the trek to LA Live’s Regal Cinemas for the debut. Also there was composer Marco Beltrami, who introduced a quintet to play a five-minute suite of music from his score before the film rolled. It was a nice overture to what was to come and the audience seemed to appreciate it, particularly the solo violin work of Sandy Cameron.
The film though has already played throughout much of the world, including its native South Korea, where it opened last August; China, France, Greece and many other stops before finally landing in the U.S. with a cut that I’m assured is 100% Bong Joon-ho’s. The picture has grossed $80 million so far around the world, so it is in good shape heading to the U.S. Grim and violent, it isn’t an obvious fest opener but seemed to play well. For my money it takes its place right alongside other great train-set classics like Runaway Train, The Train and Emperor Of The North.
As for the fest itself, it is ready to settle into its downtown headquarters at LA Live for the next nine days with its closer being the LA premiere of Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys from Warner Bros. That will screen next Thursday just as the movie begins its regular run. LA Film Fest programming director Stephanie Allain is a fan. “The movie is fantastic. Eastwood gave it his all. It is such a great way to end because it is so upbeat,” she said. She’s also excited about this year since it represents the 20th anniversary of LAFF and special events are planned. “We have realized the renaissance that’s taken place in Los Angeles, particulary downtown. Twenty years ago you couldn’t go downtown and now it’s booked,” she said. And quoting new LA Mayor Eric Garcetti as saying LA is where “creativity lives,” the festival is determined to shine a light on local filmmaking with a section called LA Muse which features a series of movies “shot in LA, set in LA, or aspiring to be in LA.”
Of course just like every year the lineup is completely eclectic, offering something for everyone including high profile previews (like 22 Jump Street, presented last Tuesday as a sneak pre-fest showing, and How To Train Your Dragon 2 which did the same thing Monday) which acknowledges commercial filmmaking at a fest that mostly is very indie. Programmer and veteran film critic David Ansen told me this year’s lineup has an impressive spread of indie movies in the narrative competition, as well as a number of terrific international films. It’s not always easy programming a festival in an industry town like Los Angeles that takes place right after Cannes and months before “awards season” starts, but he’s proud of the diverse lineup.
Sony Pictures Classics has always been a big supporter of LAFF and they will be showing off films like Sundance pick-up Love Is Strange with John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, as well as Land Ho. There will also be a “Spirit Of Independence” tribute to SPC and co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard on Monday along with a screening of their Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Another tribute will highlight women directors and TV showrunners. Actually listening to Allain reel off the endless programs, live shows, and some 200 movies in numerous sections it is almost dizzying. It seems after 20 years LAFF is really coming into its own and creating its own identity even as it takes place in the shadow of the birthplace of the movie industry itself. It’s a daunting task but one well worth checking out in the next week or so.
“We’re just doing out part to say there are lots of talented folks out here. Come out, come downtown. Enjoy your city, enjoy your festival. And we’re just getting started. We have all we need here to make this into a world class festival,” said Allain.
Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.