Why ‘Snowden’ Is Being Sold as a Thriller, Not an ‘Issue Movie’

“It’s about this guy who did this extraordinary thing that changed his life and the world. It sounds like a fictional story,” Open Road marketing chief Jonathan Helfgot tells TheWrap

snowden joseph gordon levitt
Open Road Films

The official blurb for Open Road Films’ “Snowden,” which hits theaters Friday, says the title character is considered a “hero by some, and a traitor by others.” But there are probably a lot more Americans who don’t know enough about the guy or what he did to have an opinion. And they, not Snowden fans or haters, are the real key to the film’s success.

Director Oliver Stone leaves little mystery as to his sympathies, portraying Edward Snowden broadly as a hero, an opinion shared by millions who feel the former National Security Agency contractor’s leaked information cast much needed sunlight on the surveillance state. But Jonathan Helfgot, Open Road’s director of marketing, told TheWrap that the average moviegoer the studio is targeting probably isn’t as plugged in.

“Most people do not know who he is,” he told TheWrap. “If they recognize the name, they have a vague understanding. A lot of people think he has something to do with Wikileaks. Actual awareness is very low kind of across the board, maybe outside the world of media and politics.”

But because the film stood on its own as a quality thriller independent of the protagonist’s name recognition — or lack thereof — the studio became more attracted to the project, Helfgot said.

“When we first saw the movie, it was so not a dramatization of the documentary,” he said, referring to Laura Poitras’ 2014 Snowden doc “Citizenfour.” “I think it’s really a thriller first and foremost with two big movie stars, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) and Shailene (Woodley), who have incredible fanbases. It’s about this guy — pretty much a regular guy — who did this extraordinary thing that changed his life and the world. It sounds like a fictional story.”

And that’s how Open Road plans on marketing the film to people who are more interested in being entertained for a couple hours at the movies than debating the nuances of government surveillance policy, Helfgot said.

“The strategy is to sell it as a thriller to mainstream audiences,” he said. “So-called ‘issue movies’ aren’t a recipe for box office success.”

“Citizenfour,” which covered Snowden’s initial meetings and disclosures to journalists, snagged an Oscar for best documentary but made just $3 million worldwide, which shows both the power and limits of Snowden’s core fanbase, as devoted as it is. “Snowden” needs to appeal to people who know nothing about the NSA to make the numbers work on its estimated $50 million budget.

“I don’t know if [that core fanbase] could fill a theater,” Helfgot said.

A quality thriller certainly has that power, though. Universal’s “Jason Bourne” is closing in on $400 million globally, and “Snowden” has star quality in its cast, with Gordon-Levitt, Woodley, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Scott Eastwood and Timothy Olyphant, and a director in Stone with a deep catalogue of compelling cinema.

And while Helfgot acknowledges the movie might play better in certain areas where Snowden has been a topic of heightened interest, he’s wary of suggesting that it’s the nation’s so-called “flyover” areas that haven’t heard of him. The film is going wide for a reason.

“It’s less about big city versus middle of the country and more psychographic,” he said. “There are many people in New York who have no idea who he is who want to see a cool movie, just as there are people in small towns engaged in vigorous debates over the NSA.”

Stone has a clear pro-Snowden agenda in the film, which could theoretically turn off moviegoers who view the former NSA employee as a traitor, or at least someone less than noble. However, Helfgot said those concerns are more “inside baseball,” and the average moviegoer doesn’t really put too much stock in Stone’s views, given his extensive catalog of critically acclaimed and commercially successful films like “Platoon” and “Wall Street.”

“Most people don’t think of him as a controversial lightning rod, they think of him as someone who has directed all these great movies,” Helfgot said.

And while Snowden may be an A-lister in the media and political worlds, those spheres are far removed from the mainstream audience that can make or break a wide release. The fate of Snowden the man could be up to the president of the United States, but the fate of “Snowden” the film rests on people who just want to be entertained.