In the mayhem that defines Hardcore Henry is a scene where Henry is about to force a captured enemy into spilling details about the evil plot at the center of the film. Out of nowhere, a sniper’s bullet ends the conversation, spraying the enemy’s blood and brains all over the scene. It is designed so that each audience member feels like they themselves are going to spend hours cleaning off all that blood and gore. Directed by a first time Russian writer-director named Ilya Naishuller, Hardcore Henry reaches theaters this weekend through STX Entertainment, which releases on 3000 screens here, and also in Russia, the UK and other European territories. This bold release patter came after STX made the film the biggest acquisition of the last Toronto Film Festival at $10 million for worldwide rights, after the STX team was as wowed as the audience in its Midnight Madness premiere screening and prevailed over Universal and Lionsgate in a fevered bidding battle.
The movie will feel new and cutting-edge to anyone but those who’ve spent perhaps way too much playing first person shooter video games like Call of Duty. It’s a video game, escalated to a big screen experience, and if it hits it could be a disruptive action film innovation on par with the “bullet time” techniques used by the Wachowskis in The Matrix, or Timur Bekmambetov (who serves as producer and first approached Naishuller about making what became Hardcore Henry after seeing the innovative videos Naishuller directed for his band, Biting Elbows) in Wanted.
Those were big hits, but Hardcore Henry is more of an endurance test and asks much of anyone who is not a hardcore gamer. I am one of those and I still felt a bit queasy watching it at last month’s screening at South By Southwest, (not that I’m complaining), and among those I spoke to after was one person who insisted they were nauseous. Those same complaints were heard – and blogged about – after the premiere of Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk. Sure enough, it turned out that no matter how realistic and breathtaking Zemeckis’ 3D technique was in bringing to life Philippe Petit’s historic tightrope walk across the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, mainstream audiences collectively decided they did not want to confront an inherent fear of heights and take a walk with Petit that might leave them feeling disoriented, sweaty, and struggling to not projectile vomit their popcorn.
So there are two challenges for Hardcore Henry and STX when the film unveils tomorrow: will the it pry gamers away from their controllers to fuel opening weekend grosses? And will everyone else be willing to subject themselves to an experience where the action is through their own POV?
If Hardcore Henry succeeds, then Naishuller’s technique could go from being greeted as a gimmick to zeitgeist transformative filmmaking that disrupts traditional notions of the movie going experience. Shot entirely in first person perspective using GoPro cameras mounted on headsets, “Henry” is an audience surrogate who interacts mainly with co-star Sharlto Copley, playing a variety of increasingly absurd characters who lead Henry through an escalating series of violent, terrifying encounters that for the most part rely on real stunt work and not on green screen-based special effects.
Pairing the GoPro’s extremely wide field of vision with unrelenting action and grisly violence, the momentum kicks off less than 4 minutes after it starts and doesn’t let up for even a second until the last frame. When the camera free falls from a very high height – and it really did – so does the audience. When the camera jumps from a moving vehicle to another moving vehicle, so does the audience. And when the camera is shot at, or when it delivers explosive death to enemies, the audience is doing it right along with it.
It certainly isn’t the first-ever use of first person POV in film: that goes back to the 1947 Robert Montgomery noir film Lady in the Lake, which set the tone for John Carpenter’s horror classic Halloween by putting the audience behind the mast of deranged future franchise killer Michael Myers as a child. But Hardcore Henry sustains the technique for an entire movie, and injects the first person notion with jet fuel. It killed with audiences at Toronto, and again at SXSW. STX Motion Picture Group Chairman Adam Fogelson recalls just how he felt, seeing the film with several colleagues shortly after its Toronto screening.
“While there is no question that the fun of experiencing that movie in a large and rowdy crowd is impossible to replicate, there was absolutely a visceral vibration level even from the five or six of us in the room,” he said. “Everybody who saw it immediately recognized that this is a groundbreaking accomplishment, that an entirely new language of cinema had been created.”
But groundbreaking isn’t always the same thing as lucrative. And though STX asserts that its exposure is less than $2 million thanks to international distribution partnerships, (outside observers place the company’s financial risk at closer to $5M), the studio is taking a big chance with Hardcore Henry. Gamers are a tough film audience to reach, especially the target audience of young males 17-34, who don’t take surveys and are notoriously difficult to reach by traditional marketing. They haven’t exactly turned out for past video games turned into movies, and this is an original concept that feels like a video game but doesn’t have the brand identity. Will they wait for the inevitable video game transfer, or give this one a chance?
Fogelson recognized the challenges, and STX has tried to custom taper the film’s marketing to address them. Among them: gamers are skeptical that the film can deliver a superior experience to “the self-determining experience they’ll have when they play the game,” and second, non-gaming audiences simply aren’t familiar enough to get why they should care about the film at all. Marketing for Hardcore Henry therefore needs to rope in both film fans looking for a truly novel experience, and gamers looking to see their pastime recreated.
STX partnered with Twitch.tv for the debut of the official trailer, and more recently, it partnered with game developer Starbreeze, which created Hardcore Henry-related content for their game Payday 2. These efforts, in addition to a robust digital marketing strategy, have elevated awareness and pre-release buzz: the trailer has been viewed nearly 50 million time across various platforms. And while social media data is harder to track, activity on Twitter on the eve of the film’s release has been robust.
That positions STX to be able to cover the costs of its financial bet, but the key to sleeper hit status will be drawing non-gamer moviegoers. Layered into the mayhem is a love story, but the obstacle will be to convince those moviegoers that a journey through Henry’s eyes will be enjoyable and not a physically draining one.
“We believe the movie needs to be validated as a movie experience even for people who might not consider it their type of film,” Fogelson told us. “We have the ability to talk about a groundbreaking movie experience… we thought it was important that it not be pigeonholed just for an audience that rarely comes, but for a more universal moviegoer discussion.”
I spoke to Naishuller at SXSW, and all of these factors were on his mind. “I never thought of it as a first person shooter as a movie,” he told me before his film’s Austin debut last month. “I thought of it as a movie told through first person. I think there’s a difference. I did grow up playing games and I love them, but it was always a movie first and foremost. It wasn’t “Let’s make a movie for gamers and they’ll love it,” it was “let’s make a movie for people who love movies and [for] people who love games.”
To press that case, ISPot.tv estimates STX has spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $7M on TV spots since early March for ads shown on Comedy Central, AMC, Cartoon Network during such shows as South Park, Family Guy, The Walking Dead and some NBA games. Pre-release tracking predicts it’ll likely make that money back during the first weekend, with earnings expected to come in somewhere between $7 million to $9 million domestically. As for the long-term box office, “We are crystal clear from the minute we began negotiation about most if not all of the risks of a film like this,” says Fogelson. “Any time you’re dealing with a film that doesn’t truly have a meaningful, comparable set of films, you’re swimming in open and uncharted water, you have to be aware of that.”
Fogelson is also hoping Hardcore Henry leaves a cultural mark beyond its box office gross.
“Only when a wider global audience has been exposed to the movie theatrically and ancillary life will we know how they’re responding and to what extent this exact experience or tweaked version of it is the kind of experience the audience will want to have,” he said. “It’s going to be the moment that first person POV storytelling in a theatrical world has been proven possible. No doubt in my mind that people are going to think about the applications of this… I doubt this is going to be the last time we see this type of storytelling utilized.”