Toronto: Can Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' Hack the Box Office?

Following such high-profile cyber-thriller flops as 2013 TIFF entry ‘The Fifth Estate,’ the stakes are high as the director’s drama attempts to connect with fest audiences.

Oliver Stone has said that every studio passed on Snowden before Open Road Films took a chance. After all, the film’s protagonist, Edward Snowden, is seen by some as a whistleblower and by others as a traitor. But will audiences pass?

As the film made its long-awaited bow Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival, the question is whether Stone’s take on the country’s most famous fugitive will find traction at the box office.

“Every movie has its assets and challenges, and Snowden is no exception,” says Open Road CEO Tom Ortenberg, who overcame hurdles with last year’s church abuse drama Spotlight and won the best picture Oscar. “Spotlight was a movie about a very sensitive and controversial subject, but it was embraced by audiences and critics and ultimately by Oscar voters. Regardless of where you sit politically, the movie is entertaining, and the subject matter in this case really adds to the ‘must see’ urgency.”

But Snowden — which chronicles the story of the CIA contractor who made public classified information in an effort to expose U.S. government surveillance programs — could suffer from its subject being in the news all the time. And an Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour, already covered the topic.

Plus, it isn’t the first film to bow at Toronto and tackle a digital-age hero/villain. In 2013, The Fifth Estate, about controversial leaker Julian Assange, opened the fest and went on to earn just $3 million domestically, despite a $28 million budget.

But Fifth Estate’s woes don’t necessarily mean that audiences aren’t game for subjects about one of the most hot-button issues of the day: digital vigilantism. First Look Media, a financier of Spotlight, has its own hacktivism project in the works with We Do Not Forget, a drama that chronicles Anonymous’ online battle with the Mexican drug cartels. That film will star Daniel Radcliffe and Zachary Quinto and is being shopped by CAA (Zach Helm wrote the script and is directing).

“It’s a provocative current issue, regardless of how you feel about Anonymous,” says First Look president Michael Bloom. “But what really drew us to the project was Zach’s script and its emotional core — someone who discovers an injustice and feels compelled to do something about it, even if it’s at great personal cost. That’s a powerful universal idea.”

After a string of box-office failures that depicted the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, studios became skittish of so-called hard-news dramas. But that trend was reversed with the success of Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty and its $133 million worldwide haul. That film took hits from both the right and left. Snowden, too, will likely be billed as partisan, with early reviews pointing out Stone’s overt sympathies with the film’s protagonist.

The biopic is tracking for a $10 million opening weekend upon its Sept. 16 debut, which would be a solid start for the film that cost a reported $50 million. However, its playability will be impacted by reviews (The Hollywood Reporter called it “dull”).

For Ortenberg, Stone simply created compelling filmmaking that happens to be about a compelling character. “With Snowden,” he says, “Oliver has masterfully crafted a gripping, ticking-clock thriller.”

Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.