What would have been the largest theatrical outing for Noah Baumbach’s six-times Oscar-nominated “Marriage Story” is now in doubt.
Instead, Chinese streaming service iQIYI has begun providing the film on its platform in “early-access transactional on-demand” mode.
iQIYI users across China can view the film via the iQIYI app “before (its) formal theatrical release in China and iQIYI VIPs can purchase the early-access option at a discount,” the company said Wednesday. It is no longer clear that a China theatrical release will still happen.
The film, which chronicles the collapsing relationship of a previously happy couple, and stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, was made for U.S.-based streaming service Netflix. It enjoyed a world premiere at Venice, one of the A-list festivals willing to give prominent positions to made for-streaming titles.
Netflix began playing it on its own platform from Dec. 6. But, as Netflix is not allowed to operate in mainland China, the streamer is instead free to license off individual titles to Chinese all-rights buyers.
Local distribution and marketing firm, Road Pictures had set a Valentine’s Day date for a release in China – making use of a much-observed date in the Chinese calendar, as well as positioning the film to capitalize on Oscars acclaim.
Releases of speciality titles in China can be bigger than conventional wide releases in other countries. Cannes-prize winner “Capernaum” grossed $54 million in China, Japan’s “Spirited Away,” while Thailand’s “Bad Genius” earned more than $30 million.
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“Marriage Story” had limited theatrical releases in the Netherlands, Norway and South Korea, amassing a combined cumulative box office of $334,000, according to Box Office Mojo.
The plan to release “Marriage Story” in the world’s most populous nation was scuppered when Chinese cinemas nationwide were closed from Jan. 23 due to the coronavirus outbreak. Nearly four months later, Chinese theaters have still not reopened, prompting iQIYI to go ahead with the premium-VoD release.
The film also played at the virtual edition of the Beijing International Film Festival, for which iQIYI provided the streaming architecture.
“It’s possible (to still have a theatrical release) but that will depend on the situation on the ground with theaters. The film will premiere online first. If there is a theatrical release, it will happen later,” a spokesman for Road Pictures told Variety.
China’s cinema operators were furious about the loss of “Lost in Russia.” And many have called on government to step in and protect conventional theatrical windows.
But, with China’s cinemas currently closed, multiple other experiments are now taking place. Bytedance and Huanxi Media gave Huanxi’s “Lost in Russia” a straight to streaming release in January at Chinese New Year. “Enter the Fat Dragon” and sports drama “Knockout,” were both picked up by iQIYI as cinemas closed. Hong Kong action film “The Winners,” also was bought by Bytedance.
Along with “Marriage Story,” iQIYI revealed that it has licensed prize-winning Chinese film Spring Tide, and will also give that a premium VoD outing this week. The company tested the film at the Beijing festival and said that the mother-daughter relationship story performed strongly there and rated in the top three on the Douban movie chart.
“There is no plan at the moment (to switch other titles to streaming only). But we need to see how the theatrical market situation evolves in the next few months,” said Road Pictures.