The Curious Case of "The Gambler" - The Woes of Hollywood's International Release Strategy
By Dan Kelly
Posted 11/09/14 03:56:16
On Thursday a full trailer for Paramount's remake of The Gambler went live, following on from the potty-mouthed teaser. With a cast including Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange and Brie Larson, the film, like the original (which featured James Caan) has a high calibre cast, but more excitedly marks director Rupert Wyatt's first film since 2011's impressive Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Wyatt walked from the equally excellent sequel (this year's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) back in 2012, for reasons that were never entirely clear, lining up The Gambler as his next project. Despite reservations from original scribe James Toback, the film trundled into production late last year, and wrapped in the first quarter of 2014. Things went quiet for a few months, then came trailers, posters and crucially, release announcements. Like Wahlberg's Lone Survivor the film will undergo a small December exhibition (to qualify for awards consideration) before expanding on New Year's Day. All fine, and more than a little promising. As a fan of the creatives and marketing materials,I was eager to find out when UK audiences might sample the film, presuming that sometime around January/February was probable. The UK release calendar works a little differently than the US, in that we tend to get the big awards contenders a month or two after Christmas, as opposed to 6 weeks before. As a result, I was perfectly willing to accept that there might be some delay with The Gambler. It's an outsider, and Paramount will like any sensible studio, want the film to perform in a comfortable window, without having to worry about an assortment of higher profile pedigree horses. Heck, even March 2015 would be fairly pragmatic. This morning I flicked open the IMDB to confirm it's international release pattern, and was shocked. 1st May 2015. That's almost 5 whole months after it débuts in the States. A full 135 days by my calculation.
It's not the first time I've been shocked by a delay between US and UK distribution. 20 years ago such protocol would be considered not only normal, but maybe even a little expedient. Travelling back to 1991 we find an almost identical case with Steven Spielberg's Hook, which opened in December of that year State-side, before being unveiled in the UK sometime around April '92. That was fine for then, but not for now. Bootlegs are a click away, no longer is the criminal hobbyist a dodgy bloke with a stack of scratchy VHS tapes, he's a consummate pro who rips, streams and shares punctually. I don't say that as a member of a digital generation which demands everything at its fingertips instantaneously, a hoard of ravenous culture-vultures who would download their breakfast if it meant staying in bed a bit longer, but instead with my (admittedly naïve) business head on. What sense is there in leaving The Gambler to sit around for 5 months, whilst in the meantime screeners and home entertainment releases (which I would conservatively estimate for April 2015, could be earlier though) provide international pirates with the chance to see the picture weeks before its theatrical bow. Not only that, but see it for free. Piracy is an issue in the industry, perhaps not to the degree some producers would have you believe, but it's definitely a coiled rattlesnake always willing to strike. Producer of The Expendables 3 Avi Lerner just days ago speculated the industry might crumble in five-years, citing the leak and subsequent failure of his macho threequel as evidence. He proposed the Stallone starring clunker lost some $250 million due to the picture showing up online three weeks before distribution. I'm not sure where he's pulled such a specific and gargantuan figure, and I think that film in particular had issues way before the piracy incident (it's a tired, low-standard rehash of a now soggy joke), but it's undeniable his production sacrificed some profit over the kerfuffle. Me, I'd guess more in the range of $60-70 million, but in fairness, much of that will have leaked from the potential opening weekend gross. We all know the bigger you bow, the longer you hold. So who knows, maybe old Avi's mystery digits aren't so far off the mark (they are).
Back to The Gambler. Budgetary details are slight, but the film's probably booking a production worth of around $30 million. Yeah, let's stick with my projection from here on in. It might not be exact, but I bet it's in that ballpark. So it's not a high-risk feature, but it's no slouch either, and will need to rake in around $80-90 million to get Paramount the pay-out it desires. When the film opens in January it'll probably perform solidly, doing battle with a few Oscar holdovers and horror sequels (Amityville Awakening opens simultaneously) neither of which should be discounted. Wahlberg's box-office reputation (credible but rarely exceptional) and the time of year (slooow) mean it's unlikely to clear $60 million domestic, unless it proves to be a real contender. Lone Survivor did a remarkable $125 million, but that's an exception not a rule, an Oscar wannabe driven by jingoism and action do-daring. It's a perfect film for a post-Holiday America, The Gambler- a morality thriller - isn't. Wahlberg has always been more of a local movie star, but the international grosses on his other recent efforts like Contraband, Pain & Gain and 2 Guns have still accounted for substantive percentages of overall earnings. Certainly without them, each title would have been relegated from modest success to tepid failure. And remember, Wahlberg is very much the selling point here. If The Gambler settles at around $50 million domestic (and that number will require passable word of mouth) then it's still got a ways to go before it hits the coveted $80 million, requiring about the same amount Wahlberg's last few films – excluding concept driven stuff like Transformers and even Ted - have averaged internationally ($30 million). This is all in my head, but it seems to me that Paramount need the foreign numbers, and yet, their release strategy belies an ignorance of that fact. Simply put, the gap between releases encourages piracy, and will negatively influence viewership. In an age where information can be shared and attained so fluidly, cinema must adapt, and this is one of the ways it can do so. A man called Charles once discussed “survival of the fittest”, a theory that suggested those who adjust and subsequently thrive in a habitat will victor, leaving the poor sods standing stagnant to suffer. Contemporary media is an ecosystem, and if film doesn't evolve, it'll go the way of the dodo. I'm not promising it'll happen in five years, but consequences ultimately have to be honoured. If Hollywood insists on continuing the practice of releasing movies eons after their American run, it's signing a death warrant.
Piracy is clearly the buzzword, but we'll retire it for the next diatribe. The delay doesn't even make sense from a short-term viewpoint. I agree that the January/February slate in the UK is much more competitive than it's US counterpart, and consideration of such should be taken, but it's not like May is a bundle of laughs for a mid-range, adult-oriented thriller. The Gambler will open 7 days after Avengers: Age of Ultron assumes control of wallets worldwide, and in a month that also boasts Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, Tomorrowland and Insidious 3. Against that slew of competition I see little hope for Wyatt's venture. In 2012 Peter Berg suggested Battleship failed on the back of The Avengers, the Marvel romp packing theatres for weeks before it slowed. If Berg was accurate (which, despite his film's faults, he probably was) then what hope doe The Gambler harbour against the sequel, which is shaping to be one of the most anticipated films of all time? I would posit, virtually none. There might be some consolation in the name of “counter-programming”, but that's like getting a medal for taking part. No, I suggest The Gambler would make as much, maybe even more, if it undertook UK exhibition in Feb or March. That way, the piracy problem is also largely solved. There's that word again.
Of late, some major tent-poles have been released internationally first. Avengers: Age of Ulton will rank among this select group's numbers (May 1st in the US), with several major Marvel endeavours having popularized the trend since 2008. The delay tends to range from 3-7 days, with studios citing the battle against INTERNATIONAL PIRACY (jeez) as central to their rational. So “shut-up” I hear , “you get the Avengers and we get Wahlberg, what's your fuggin' issue?”. Aside from the fact I'd prefer a Wahlberg vehicle any day of the week, it's the elapsed time that cuts deepest. You wait an extra 5 days. We have to twiddle thumbs for 5 months. In a world rife with war, disease and famine it would be irresponsible to label the action barbaric, but it's definitely anachronistic. Atop that, Paramount are certainly hampering their own business prospects, for a feature they at least have a modicum of faith in (it wouldn't be getting an awards qualifying run otherwise). It hearkens back to a different time, and a more patient generation. The folks who happily queued to see Hook have grown up, replaced by young people who “WANT IT NOW!”. This generation will stream, torrent and rip to their heart's content, and worse still, forget about things in a heartbeat. In 5 months, with the Oscars done and the internet marketing campaign invisible, which of the UK's many teenage cinephiles will recall The Gambler? Fewer than identify with it now, certainly. It's also possible to argue that some of this crop won't pay for it anyway, Paramount simply resigning themselves to an inevitable loss. Maybe. But surely there's a better chance of catching a 21-year old couple on date night in February, than the same pair who have to weigh The Gambler against Age of Ultron in May. Sometimes the glass can be half full.
The scattered release calendar remains perplexing, in a sense it always has been. But with The Gambler I see no logic, just a careless loss of money and unintentional promotion of piracy. Of course I'd selfishly like the film sooner, I really want to see it. But even from a cold entirely dispassionate perspective, the UK release of The Gambler feels destined to come up snake-eyes.