Snowpiercer: Movie Theater vs. Home Theater

Snowpiercer is an outlier as far as independent movies go. Produced with a decent budget ($40 million), it has a charismatic star in Chris Evans, who plays Captain America, and it garnered positive reviews in the press. However, despite these qualities, Snowpiercer did not receive a widespread theatrical release in the US. Instead, the sci-fi flick opened on about 350 screens and shortly thereafter became available for rental or purchase via iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, YouTube, and video-on-demand.

The experiment worked. After only two weeks, online delivery plus on-demand revenue matched that of the theatrical showings. According to Variety, Snowpiercer made $3.9 million over the course of five weeks playing in theaters while it made $3.8 million in just two weeks of on-demand and online rentals/sales. Although Snowpiercer cost $40 million to make, it grossed $80 million worldwide before opening in the US—in other words; the movie was already a financial success. In addition, every dollar it made online counted for over two dollars in theatrical revenue, according to Radius-TWC, the film’s distributor. Studio executives are bound to scrutinize Snowpiercer’s box office performance.

In the past, I’ve performed similar comparisons between online delivery formats and Blu-ray, but in this case the US Blu-ray release of Snowpiercer is months away. Instead of waiting, I decided to compare the online-delivery formats to each other, as well as the at-home viewing experience to the theatrical experience. Even though the movie only played on 353 screens at its peak, one of those screens happened to be within walking distance of my Center City, Philadelphia home.

I started my comparison watching the film in my studio via Vudu HDX. I used my calibrated Samsung PN64F8500 plasma, which is seven feet from my seat—an optimal distance for viewing 1080p content on a 64-inch screen. Vudu delivered a very good-quality stream—it’s likely not as sharp as a good Blu-ray, but it looked excellent. Every scene displayed rich detail, and there were no noticeable compression artifacts such as banding and macro blocking—even during extremely dark scenes. Sound quality was typical for a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1-channel presentation, with superb channel separation and moderately engaging dynamics—usually Blu-ray sounds a bit better than streaming video. Ultimately, Snowpiercer looked and sounded great at home.

Then, I went out to the movies. I saw Snowpiercer at The Roxy Theater in Philadelphia. The Roxy is a two-auditorium art house theater in the heart of Center City, which is Philly’s downtown. Its neighbors include some of the best restaurants and bars—the nightlife in that area is vibrant. The theater itself used to be run-down. However, I recently read that the Philadelphia Film Society took over the lease and renovated the amphitheaters. Since it was the closest theater screening Snowpiercer, I went to check it out. It has been a while since my last visit to any theater, which was an IMAX 3D presentation of Iron Man 3, back in May of 2013.

Unfortunately, in terms of its design, the Roxy Philadelphia is the worst theater I’ve ever been to. I was mildly shocked when I first entered. The screen was high up on the back wall, very high up. It was a very small screen—more like what I see in a large home theater than what I find in a commercial one, and far too small for the theater itself. As an aside, even though I don’t go out to movies often, I’ve shot many amphitheaters for Regal Cinemas, including the chain’s flagship Times Square property. Between my work for Regal and my work for AVS Forum, I can spot a well-designed auditorium—and The Roxy in Philly was definitely not that. I’ll discuss the experience in-depth in a separate article I’m writing.

Watching Snowpiercer in The Roxy was painful. The recently installed surround-sound system lacked bass, yet the soundtrack was often too loud to bear. At times dialog was unintelligible. As far as I could tell, there was no channel separation. Visually, it was impossible to find a seat with a satisfying view of the screen. Furthermore, a huge and ultra-bright EXIT sign that’s right next to the screen provided a constant distraction. However, the biggest crime was the image quality—blacks were grayish, and the small screen made it so viewers would not even get the full benefit of 720p source material, much less 1080p. I know because I measured the screen with my fingers (arm outstretched) and compared the angle of view to my optimum system at home. Sitting in a middle row in The Roxy is equivalent to watching a 39-inch TV from ten or eleven feet away. Even from the front row, the screen is too small to get the full benefit of 1080p. The truth is I did not stay for the entire movie; I bailed a little more than an hour into the screening.

I wish I had seen Snowpiercer in a commercial multiplex instead of my local art house cinema, but it’s unlikely that a major film distributor would pick up a movie that’s destined for release via online channels and video-on-demand while it is still in theaters. The thing is I stopped going to movie theaters for a number of reasons that include bad sound and image quality—just on a larger screen than what I experienced at The Roxy.

In this instance, online delivery definitively beat the theatrical option. My one ticket to the movies cost me $12, whereas my rental cost $7. Regardless of which online service I used to view it, Snowpiercer looked and sounded far better in my home than it did in the theater. Which online service provided the highest-quality version? It’s a tough call because the movie seemed close to perfect on Vudu HDX and iTunes HD. I observed Vudu HDX provide the best image quality of the three by the slimmest of margins, with iTunes coming in a very close second. Amazon HD was a little bit softer than the other two formats.

In terms of color and contrast, the three online-delivery formats looked almost identical—closer than I’ve seen in the past. Notably, even the darkest scenes were free of banding artifacts. In terms of sound, I found no discernible difference between the three formats. It’ll be interesting to see and hear what Blu-ray brings to the equation—Snowpiercer is a good enough film to merit another screening. For now, here are some screenshot comparisons from the movie.

All comparisons are in lossless .png format, taken from PC screen grabs. To view the unaltered pixels, open the images in a new tab and zoom in to 100%.

The first half of the film takes place in the back of the train. The color palate is cold and dark. For this scene, it’s a tie in terms of quality.

In this scene, Vudu and iTunes look a bit sharper than Amazon. Amazon also looks a little bit washed out in comparison. I can’t decide if Vudu looks any sharper than iTunes.

Another tie between iTunes and Vudu. Amazon looks a tiny bit softer. Colors look nearly identical between the three formats.

This scene is great for comparing detail. Vudu and iTunes are just about tied, and Amazon looks a little softer.

Once again, Vudu and iTunes are virtually tied, while Amazon looks a bit softer.