Friday, January 26, 2007

THE HOST - How Not to Release An International Blockbuster in the U.S.

Before I begin this post I want to make one thing clear: I do not have anything against Eamonn Bowles. I have never met him, he’s never met me, and I don’t think we have any mutual acquaintances or enemies. What little I know of him I actually admire, mainly that he is the president of NY-based indie distributor Magnolia Pictures, plays in a rock band, and is a longtime supporter of WFMU, the world’s greatest radio station. Oh yeah, and I think he’s a dope.

Not many of you know this, but the region 3 DVD for Bong Joon-ho’s THE HOST was released two weeks ago in South Korea and all throughout Asia. THE HOST, if you haven’t heard of it, was the surprise critical hit of last year’s Cannes Film Festival which then went on to become the highest grossing film in Korean box office history. It’s played all the major festivals (I saw it at the New York Film Festival in October) and has received scores of critical praise pretty much everywhere it plays. It’s also a giant monster movie. A South Korean giant monster movie that shows just how to make slick, smart, intelligent, fun, funny, thrilling motion picture entertainment. I’m not saying it’s the second coming of JAWS, but it’s a pretty terrific picture that you’d have to be missing a pulse to dislike. I have one friend, let’s call him “Jason Bylan”, who claims to love horror movies but hates pretty much every horror film made this decade (including, incredibly, THE DESCENT) and even he liked this movie. Damn, it must be good. If you see THE HOST, chances are you will like it, like it a lot, and tell your friends to see it. And Magnolia Pictures, Mr. Bowles’ company, happens to have the U.S. rights to THE HOST and is planning on releasing the film in theaters this March. Here’s a link to the film’s website and trailer that should pique your interest in seeing it. So by all means Magnolia should be getting ready to clear some space in their bank vault for all of the money that THE HOST is going to make, right? Not quite. And the reason being is that Eamonn Bowles, whom I’ve never met and have nothing against, is a dope.

Once THE HOST screened at Cannes, Magnolia picked up all North American rights and quickly set an October release date. Play dates at major North American festivals were booked to build up to the release. And then October became November. November became January. January became March and it’s looking like we’ll see THE HOST finally hit U.S. movie screens on March 7. If you haven’t seen the film, I heartily recommend it, of course, especially on a big screen. But the chances are pretty good that a lot of you will have seen the film before March 7 and there’s little anyone could do about that. They could have, but for some reason the film wasn’t released when it should have been and that’s why Eamonn Bowles is a dope.

I really should make it clear that it’s not so much Eamonn Bowles himself I find to be a dope, but rather the decision (which I have no doubt Bowles was involved in) to keep moving this film back. I understand – and am completely sympathetic to – the issues that go into distributing films in 2007. It’s not an easy (or cheap) thing to do and the market place is very crowded right now. The argument can be made on their end that in order to do this release properly and get the maximum amount of screens they would have to wait until March and maybe they’re right. But anyone who pays attention to this kind of thing knows that by delaying the release they were increasing the chance that the film was going to be bootlegged all over the place. Now that the region 3 disc (which contains English subtitles) is out, the theatrical prospects for THE HOST have diminished significantly. Let me give you two examples of how. Example #1: At the office I work at, a fellow employee has already passed a few DVD-Rs of the region 3 disc around to fellow employees. He’s not selling it to them, he’s just making copies, simply as a friendly gesture. The ironic thing is that I work for a company where piracy has cost us millions (if not billions) of dollars and yet it’s just as blatant in these offices as it is on a blanket at the corner of Canal and Lafayette. Example #2: I pass through a shopping mall on the way home every day and there are two kiosks there that sell bootlegs of martial arts films and other Asian cinema hits. I passed by it the other day to see DRAGON TIGER GATE playing (not very good, I’m told) and, out of curiosity, asked the East Indian gentleman who tends to the kiosk if THE HOST was available. “Next week”, he said, and went back to the martial arts mayhem on the screen.

There are kiosks like this in malls all over (I’ve seen several in N.J.) and nothing is being done about them. They were all selling region 1 bootlegs of DISTRICT 13, THE PROTECTOR, OLDBOY, LADY VENGEANCE, FEARLESS, SEVEN SWORDS and pretty much every major Asian non-animated film made over the last five years. Once they hit theaters most of those films tanked (FEARLESS did OK) and to me the reason is obvious, the audience already saw them. Hell, everyone I knew saw OLDBOY on disc before it hit theaters here. The crowd for these films is very tech savvy and they know when and where they can get these things. If it’s available elsewhere but it doesn’t have subtitles, they can create them themselves. And once a good DVD version is available, you know it’s only a matter of time that a title is available for download on some file-sharing site. That’s not something I really partake in, but I’m sure that for those who do, they’ve already seen THE HOST. And there’s not much you can do about that. Some might say that these multi-region DVD players are the problem, but there are millions of them out there, so you try and stop them. Same goes for all of the online importers and hipster video stores that sell and rent the multi-region DVDs. Besides, studios like Miramax (back in the Weinstein days) already tried, with little success. No, the real answer is to be on the ball and release the film before they can get those bootlegs out. Had THE HOST opened in October like it was supposed to we would not be having this conversation. More than likely the U.S. DVD would be hitting stores around now and Magnolia would be making room in the vaults for all the money it would be bringing in (and maybe picking up a few year-end awards, too). But that’s not the case. THE HOST will probably do some decent business in theaters but it will not have legs and disappear from theaters quickly, hitting DVD by mid-summer. The word-of-mouth on the film is justifiably excellent, but if your 15 year-old nephew has a pristine copy he can loan you for nothing, why pay $10 to see it?

I’m sure whatever Magnolia’s reasons were for waiting almost 6 months to release THE HOST in this country were sound and justifiable in their eyes, but they came at a price to the film and now they’ve done it a disservice. I’d love to see THE HOST become a big hit over here, but I doubt that’s going to happen and it’s a fucking shame. It’s also a shame that you can’t sit back and take some extra time to care and finesse a film into theaters but rather have to run a race against bootleggers, but that’s the reality of the situation in 2007. While the theatrical release of a film is pretty much a glorified promotion for the DVD release these days, THE HOST still deserved more. Someone over at Magnolia must have known that timing was of the essence, but they didn’t follow through. What dopes.

1 comment:

eamonn bowles said...

just got around to seeing this. hey you're right - i am a dope sometimes. but one of the big problems was that the film bombed in england, france, in fact every country outside of korea. we were trying to figure out a different marketing tact and not go ahead with the strategies that didn't work in the other countries. and actually, the dvd proliferation most likely did cost us some biz theatrically. and though we didn't do as well as we wanted to, we were just about the best performing territory outside of korea, relative to size. but fear not, our dvd package is kicking major ass and, yes we are making a buttload on the film, which were dopey enough to acquire u.s. rights for what ended up being $15,000.