US flop will go straight to DVD; others are sure to follow.
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26 Sep 2011 - 11:00 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 12:30 AM

If you were looking forward to seeing Rod Lurie's new version of Sam Peckinpah's classic 1971 thriller Straw Dogs in cinemas, tough luck.

In the wake of the film's US flop, distributor Sony yanked it from its theatrical schedule – it was due to open November 17 – and the title will go straight to DVD.

That's not an isolated case and we can expect more US films which distributors regard as risky prospects to bypass cinemas.

The saga of a Hollywood screenwriter and his actress wife who return to her hometown where conflicts flare with the locals, Straw Dogs opened in the US on September 16, yielding just $5.1 million in the first weekend, despite a solid cast headed by James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård and James Woods, and favourable reviews from some influential critics.

“The new Straw Dogs is at times a faithful copy of the old one, reproducing a great many scenes, shots and passages of dialogue, and tweaking others ever so slightly. As a filmmaker, Mr. Lurie cannot hope to match Peckinpah's lyricism, but he strikes a decent balance of bluntness and subtlety,” said The New York Times' A.O. Scott.

Opined Roger Ebert, “I found it visceral, disturbing and well-made… Rod Lurie has made a first-rate film of psychological warfare, and yes, I thought it was better than Peckinpah's.”

But many reviewers judged the movie as too dark and gory for mainstream audiences. “Straw Dogs is one of those movies that sits in an armchair, smokes a pipe and reflects 'seriously' on 'the question of violence,' but the main reason to see it is for the hilariously nasty uses it devises for a bear trap, nail gun, etc.,” said The New York Post's Kyle Smith.

“A really bloody, vile Lifetime movie… an absolutely unnecessary remake,” sniffed E! Online's Peter Paras.

Sony Pictures Releasing Australia managing director Stephen Basil-Jones points to a number of factors which make the cinema release of under-performing titles such as Straw Dogs unviable.

“The terms (with exhibitors) are so poor you can't release some small-to-medium movies that require a substantial advertising campaign; it doesn't work,” he told SBS Film.

Distributors and cinema owners never publicly discuss their terms of trade but one exhibition source says that distributors of films that struggle at the box office typically receive just 30-35 percent of the gross.

Basil-Jones identifies steep increases in advertising costs on free TV, outdoor and on the internet, tumbling DVD revenues and lower license fees from broadcasters as other factors which make it tough for distributors to make a profit on some films that gross between $2.5 million and $5 million.

“In the old days DVD repaid us in kind but that market is in trouble and it's no longer a golden parachute,” he adds.

Those economics forced Sony to send several other titles straight to DVD recently. Roadshow took that route with the Nicolas Cage actioner Drive Crazy as did Disney with Winnie the Pooh, and Roadshow has just cancelled the December 1 release of horror/sci-fi pic Apollo 18: all bombed in the US.

The glut of titles jostling for cinema dates is also contributing to a squeeze on distributors' bottom lines. “The reality is that there are a great many films being released in the market,” says Paramount Pictures managing director Mike Selwyn. “It's a question of assessing how much DVD can be helped by a theatrical release.”

Roadshow's Brett Rosengarten said, “If we have a film whose commercial potential is challenging, a theatrical release doesn't make sense.”

As for Lurie's Straw Dogs, if you're still keen to catch it the DVD is due out in February.