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Wednesday, July 30,2014

Train in vain

Why the critically acclaimed ‘Snowpiercer’ probably won’t make a stop in Lansing

by Allan I. Ross
Maybe you’ve heard of “Snowpiercer,” the sci fi action thriller starring Chris Evans (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) set on a futuristic supertrain. According to the buzz, it’s a visionary twist on the postapocalyptic epic, where the remnants of humanity have fallen into a rigid caste system after the world has been devastated by a new Ice Age. Sort of like last winter here in mid-Michigan — so hey, it’s relatable.

The 2013 South Korean import has made $85 million in worldwide box office, shattered records in its home country and received almost universal critical acclaim. But local audiences probably won’t get to see “Snowpiercer” in theaters — at least no time soon. Due to snafus with the distributor, it was only given a limited national run starting last month and Lansing wasn’t one of the 356 stops. Some locals drove an hour or more to other cities — Kalamazoo, Birmingham, Ann Arbor — to see it. Others watched it on video-on-demand where it debuted two weeks after its North American premiere in an experimental rollout gamble. But I’ve been holding out for a Lansing theater to pick it up.

A move, it appears, that may be in vain. In an area with four multiplexes and 59 screens, not a one of them has been spared for “Snowpiercer.” You can catch a right wing pseudo-documentary made by a thoroughly discredited author and convicted felon (“America: Imagine the World Without Her) or a Christianity-under-attack conspiracy theory “thriller,” which has a 0 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes (“Persecuted”). But alas, no “Snowpiercer.”

The regional manager for Owosso-based theater chain NCG Cinemas, which has a location in the Eastwood Towne Center, said he’d never heard of the film, but wouldn’t talk on the record when I asked him why it wasn’t playing there. (He did say he’d pass my request along to NCG’s “booker.”) The spokeswoman for the Lansing Mall’s recently opened Regal Cinemas, part of the biggest theater chain in North America, didn’t return my call. And while “Snowpiercer” is playing at Celebration! Woodland in Grand Rapids, its local sibling theater, Celebration! Cinema Lansing & IMAX, is not.

“(‘Snowpiercer’) is doing pretty well at some of our larger market locations,” said Steve VanWagoner, spokesman for the Grand Rapids-based Celebration! Cinema chain. “Everyone I’ve talked to who’s seen it has really enjoyed it. We’d play it (in Lansing) if we could. It seems to have been more of a distributor decision.”

VanWagoner called the distribution process “pretty complicated.” Yes, film is an art form, but the movie industry is a business, and there are a lot of moving parts with big bucks at stake: Studios, production companies, distribution companies, movie theaters, all of whom play critical roles in a movie’s path from concept to projection in a darkened room.

“It’s a complicated industry, and theaters are the misunderstood part of story,” VanWagon stream movies, you tend to go that way.”

Since it opened in December 2012, Studio C! has devoted one screen in its spring and fall frames to the Indie Series, which is programmed by East Lansing Film Festival founder Susan Woods. The fall series starts in September, and will feature a blend of foreign fare, documentaries and cerebral art films. And maybe …

“I would love to open the East Lansing Film Festival (in October) with ‘Snowpiercer,’” Woods said. “We usually have to wait until (films) go into something called secondary distribution, and we rent them that way. The heart of the festival is providing Lansing with movies that aren’t released in mainstream, and ‘Snowpiercer’ is a great example.”

Of course, non-mainstream films also play locally — “Wish I Was Here,” Zach Braff ’s spiritual sequel to his sleeper hit “Garden State,” and the romance musical “Begin Again” can each be seen on two local screens. But Lansing doesn’t have anywhere near the population density of Grand Rapids or Detroit, so by size alone we’re going to miss a lot of things.

I’ve even heard people say that the traditionally blue-collar capital city is too low-brow for such a high-concept film, but that’s an argument I refuse to buy into. Lansing also has a vibrant creative class that could have helped fuel “Snowpiercer” into a sleeper hit, but until a local movie house dedicates some full-time screens to truly independent, challenging cinema, we’ll never know.

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