This weekend, the acclaimed movie Snowpiercer comes out in the United States at last... in a handful of theaters, with almost no publicity. And Snowpiercer isn't the first beloved movie to get this treatment. Here are some movies that almost everybody agrees are brilliant — but which were released in a vacuum.
The Iron Giant
Let's start with the most acclaimed movie on this list. The Iron Giant has a whopping 97 on the Rotten Tomatoes' tomatometer. So how did a movie that is so beloved wind up not being one of the most talked about movies of all time? Well, basically, the studio was afraid of cartoons:
The Quest for Camelot did so badly that everybody backed away from animation and fired people. Suddenly we had no executive anymore on Iron Giant, which was great because Brad got to make his movie. Because nobody was watching. Iron Giant came out great, but then when we showed the executives the movie, they didn't get it. They said, 'Oh, yeah, it's good ...' I wish that Warner had known how to release it.
We had toy people and all of that kind of material ready to go, but all of that takes a year! Burger King and the like wanted to be involved. In April we showed them the movie, and we were on time. They said, 'You'll never be ready on time.' No, we were ready on time. We showed it to them in April and they said, "We'll put it out in a couple of months." That's a major studio, they have 30 movies a year, and they just throw them off the dock and see if they either sink or swim, because they've got the next one in right behind it.
After they saw the reviews they were a little shamefaced.
Danny Boyle's movie about the race to restart a dying sun is loved by many people. Unfortunately, Sunshine "launched slowly" overseas, according to boxofficemojo.com, and didn't have a U.S. release date lined up yet. The weak overseas numbers scared the studio enough that Sunshine's U.S. release was delayed a few months until July. It opened in 10 theaters (shooting up to 492 the next week, then rapidly declining in the following months) with little fanfare. It has since garnered a pretty large fan-base with a critic rating of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Mike Judge's weird dystopian satire takes aim at American pop culture, so it was always going to be a hard sell. In Idiocracy, the U.S. military freezes an average American and wakes him up in the future. Only to discover a future where stupidity is prized over intellect. Judge had a long hard fight against studio execs who just didn't get it, as he explains in this interview with Esquire:
Idiocracy was supposed to be different. He filmed it two years ago, but once photography was finished, the real problems began: So-and-so executive hasn't had a chance to see it, so everything was put on hold. Then Fox started nickel-and-diming him over a few special-effects costs. Finally, once the movie was totally finished last fall, Judge and the execs started to butt heads over the marketing, especially the trailers… "They're just overthinking it, which is what they always do," Judge says. "It's just about an average dumb-ass person who winds up in the future. It's not about 'What if you could travel through time. . . .'
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
On the heels of Terry Gilliam's disastrous conflicts with the studio over Brazil, it's not too surprising that this film ran into trouble. But it wasn't that his work was too confusing or bleak this time around, but that studio executives were using it to get back at a previous studio regime who had greenlit the film.
Out of all of Terry Gilliam's work for many people this is the one that comes to mind first. Gilliam fought tooth and nail with a studio executive for this one and it seems that out of sheer spite for that studio's prior regime (who had green lit the film), as Gilliam explains:
"Yeah. And this one was such an odd one, because there were a lot of knives going in for a variety of reasons. The ultimate fact was that when the film was ultimately released, there were only 117 prints made for America – so it was never really released. 117 prints! ...an art film gets 400. We were ultimately the victim of Columbia Tri-Star being sold to Sony, because at that time all they were doing was trying to get the books looking as good as possible. We weren't the only film that suffered, but we were the most visible one. And what happened – to complete the story in a neat and tidy way – was that they were not spending any money on advertising to promote any of the movies started by the previous regime – by Putnam's regime. They were burying films left right and center by spending no money on them – and the books looked really good at the end of that."
Despite the limited release the movie was getting overwhelmingly positive reviews:
Yeah. The joke is, if you look back, we got the best reviews and we were doing the best business in the opening weeks of any film they had released since Last Emperor. We actually opened well in the big cities – we opened really well. A friend who had bought the video rights said he had never seen anything so weird – Columbia was spending their whole time looking at exit polls to prove the film would not work in the suburbs, and so it would be pointless to make any more prints. He said, "I've never seen anything like this." There it was. Then it becomes this kind of legend – which it deserves to be... even if it's the wrong legend.
Attack the Block
Everything seemed all set for this film. Edgar Wright was attached as executive producer, and this movie was creating all sorts of buzz from its international release. So why didn't this "street gang vs. invading aliens" movie take off? Well, basically the studio execs didn't quite trust that an American audience would be able to understand what, exactly, the characters, speaking in heavy urban accents, would be saying. They even went as far as suggesting subtitles for a movie where English was spoken.
The director, Joe Cornish went as far as directly asking an American audience at SXSW if the dialect was a problem.
"Can I ask you guys something? American distributors are nervous about language, the slang."
The audience shot back resoundingly that they could understand everything just fine.
"My gut feeling is maybe they underestimate you guys," responded Cornish. "With 20 years of hip-hop culture, with 'The Wire,' did you feel this was difficult? No? Well, tell your local distributors that that's the case."
Despite reassurances that American audiences would understand, Attack the Block opened in 8 theaters, and never got the full publicity machine that it deserved.
The Midnight Meat Train
This movie about a photographer trying to get a glimpse of a serial killer named The Subway Butcher had plenty going for it. It was written by bestselling horror scribe Clive Barker, and it starred the up-and-coming Bradley Cooper as well as cult favorite Vinnie Jones.
So what happened?
According to an interview with Clive Barker, like the rest of the movies on this list, the studio happened:
"The Midnight Meat Train" was originally set for a May 16 release date but was pushed to August 1, where it was only released in 102 second-run and dollar theaters. Though many of the screenings were viewed by sold-out audiences, the movie only made $83,361. Some fans can't help but wonder if this decision was driven by corporate politics. That's Barker's take on the situation to be sure. The filmmaker said he believed Lionsgate president Joe Drake was essentially shortchanging other people's films in order to focus more attention on movies like "The Strangers," where he received a producing credit.
Ryuhei Kitamura "made a f—-ing great movie, and the politics that are being visited upon it have nothing to do with the movie at all. This is all about ego, and though I mourn the fact that 'Midnight Meat Train' was never given its chance in theaters, it's a beautifully stylish, scary movie, and it isn't going anywhere. People will find it, and whether they find it in midnight shows or they find it on DVD, they'll find it, and in the end the Joe Drakes of the world will disappear."
To this day the movie holds a 71% on Rotten Tomatoes list of critic's reviews.
MST3K: The Movie
For a movie where the main storyline revolves around the main cast sitting around and making fun of a cheesy old movie, this movie has a huge, fanatical following. But, because of the unconventional nature of the film, the studio just didn't know how to market it. So it didn't — instead, the studio threw its support behind Pamela Anderson's Barb Wire. The Village Voice has an excellent article on the whole debacle that you can check out here.
This movie about parasitic alien worms that turn a small town into a kind of hive mind, by the future Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, has a huge following. Yet when it came out, it didn't get too much love from the movie-goers. And a lot of this had to do with a lack of decent marketing, as Gunn explained:
I understand that "SLiTHER" didn't perform very well at the box office; have the DVD sales been better?
Yes, the DVD sales are a lot better.
A follow-up question to that: everyone I know that saw it loved "SLiTHER", yet there are quite a few folks that didn't get out to see it. Was there some bad marketing decisions that played into the movie's performance?
Probably. But the film was difficult to market. It was a mixture of genres – the horror film, the independent black comedy, the gross-out film – and that was difficult for people to understand through a two minute trailer. Hell, it was difficult for some people to understand through the entire film!