The big news on the horror circuit right now is last week’s severely truncated release of writer-director Adam Green’s HATCHET II. AMC Theaters, the film’s sole U.S. distributor, yanked it after just three days. That is to say the film opened on Friday, October 4 and was pulled from release the morning of Monday, October 7, which is undoubtedly some kind of record. I certainly can’t think of another example of a movie pulled this quickly; most all movies are at least allowed a week’s play, no matter how little money they make.
Adam Green put out a press release claiming he has no idea why his film suffered the fate it did (“How the decision was made to pull the film early, no one will ever know”), and took the opportunity to praise AMC (“don‘t hate the theaters, they tried”). The internet, of course, has been buzzing with conspiracy theories, most of them involving the MPAA, who Green has repeatedly spoken out against. Green’s decision to put out HATCHET II in unrated form has apparently ruffled quite a few feathers in the halls of the MPAA and other circles, although the idea that MPAA agents would step in to kill the film’s release because of that fact seems a mite implausible to me.
Yes, like seemingly everyone else on the web I have a theory as to why HATCHET II was yanked, although it’s admittedly not as exciting as the wide-ranging conspiracies others have proposed. The stark reality is that HATCHET II took in perilously little money–a reported $53 grand in the 68 theaters it was released in, which works out to a pretty sorry average of just $774 per screen–which coupled with the fact that its distributor, the DVD outfit Dark Sky Films, was woefully inexperienced in theatrical distribution added up to disaster.
HATCHET and its writer-director are popular in the hardcore horror community but largely unknown to most moviegoers, and no wonder: unless you’re a gorehound there’s just not a whole lot in HATCHET to sustain interest. I understand that HATCHET II–starring Danielle Harris and Kane Hodder, names with no relevance outside the horror sphere–is more of the same, meaning its potential theatrical audience is limited at best.
As for Dark Sky Films, they’re certainly not a major distributor. In fact they don’t even qualify as a minor in the movie distribution sphere, which I believe had a large part in sealing HATCHET II’s doom. Dark Sky, unlike the big guys, lacked the clout and marketing savvy to keep the film afloat.
As in any other business, politics play a large part in theatrical distribution. I vividly recall this from my days as a projectionist at a multiplex back in the early 1990s. It was common back then (as it still is nowadays) to keep a sparsely attended movie playing in theaters far longer than it should based on backroom deals with, or pressure put on theater owners by, the film’s releasing arm.
An example is the 1993 Warner Bros. distributed NUTCRACKER. It probably made less money per screen than HATCHET II, yet I was forced to screen it (to mostly empty auditoriums) for several weeks. The picture may have been DOA with audiences, but Warners was determined to squeeze every penny it could from it. THE NUTCRACKER’S final gross? A little over $2 million–pretty astounding for a film hardly anyone turned out for.
An example of the inverse was FROZEN, another Adam Green film released earlier this year. It received largely positive reviews and, unlike HATCHET II, had the potential to play to audiences outside the hardcore horror circle. Unfortunately it, like HATCHET II, was released by a DVD outfit with little experience in the theatrical arena (in this case Anchor Bay Films) and FROZEN was yanked from most venues after a single week.
A small and/or inexperienced distributor attempting a release in today’s ultra-competitive theatrical marketplace is akin to entering a student driver in the Indy 500. It’s hardly surprising that FROZEN crashed and burned as it did: its advertising campaign ridiculously dubbed it “JAWS on a ski slope”…not the most promising tagline (why is it that studios are still evoking JAWS in their advertising? Can’t they come up with a more contemporary reference?).
Dark Sky’s marketing of HATCHET II was even less inspiring. I for one didn’t even know it was out until reading about it being pulled from distribution last Monday. In his press release, however, Adam Green claims Dark Sky splashed out a fair amount of money “creating prints, posters, traveling cast for appearances, hiring PR firms to promote the film, and all the other very costly things that go into making and distributing a theatrical film…” In short, Dark Sky apparently did all they could to get the word out about HATCHET II–and it wasn’t nearly enough.
Would things have worked out differently for HATCHET II had it made more money? Most definitely, but it actually made very little, and AMC evidently had no compunctions about pulling it early. Who, after all, was going to stop them? Certainly not a tiny outfit like Dark Sky Films, which has zero clout, nor the HATCHET films’ vocal but miniscule fan base.
What can we learn from the fiasco of HATCHET II’s theatrical release? That, distribution-wise, the deck is always stacked against independent filmmakers and distributors, and that (to reiterate a point I’ve made before), if you’re if at all interested in a film or filmmaker it’s vitally important that you show your support where it counts: with your wallet!