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Specialty Films Forced to Take More Risks in Expanding Theater Count Sooner

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After opening in two theaters in December 2017, Guillermo del Toro’s Searchlight drama The Shape of Water never played in more than 1,000 locations until its ninth weekend, after picking up 13 Academy Award nominations. The film would go on to win four Oscars, including best picture and best director, and earn $63.9 million domestically.

Searchlight, like other specialty and indie distributors, has for decades relied on what’s known as a platform release to nurture art house titles. Now, the traditional platform model is an endangered species after consumer behavior changed in the pandemic era — particularly among older moviegoers — and two high-profile cinemas catering to indie fare closed in Los Angeles: the ArcLight Hollywood and the Landmark on the Westside.

This year’s Oscar contenders are expanding more quickly because limited runs aren’t producing the sorts of grosses they previously did. But if a movie doesn’t capture a broad enough audience when going wide, it will lose screens almost entirely.

A classic platform release begins with a run in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Instead of the gross, the per-location average is the measure of success. In the pre-pandemic era, a “good” location average could easily be north of $75,000 or even more than $100,000. For example, the opening average for the Oscar-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was $106,000. Those days are over.

“We are in a different marketplace with different dynamics. These films are going after mature audiences who are more likely to stay home,” says Comscore box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

So far this year, Everything Everywhere All at Once boasts the top opening average of 2022, or $50,000 from six theaters in March. The A24 film turned into a box office sensation, earning $70 million domestically. That included earning a tidy $6 million when expanding from 58 to 1,220 cinemas in its third weekend.

Focus Features’ Cate Blanchett-starring Oscar contender Tár, released in early October, posted a promising opening-location average of $39,655 from four theaters in New York and LA But it began to struggle as it expanded, earning only $1.1 million when booking 1,087 locations in its fourth weekend. As of Nov. 15, Tár is available on premium VOD and saw its screen count drop to 359 (its current box office cume is $4.6 million).

Among other current Oscar contenders, MGM and UAR’s Till leads the pack with a domestic total of $8 million, but so far has not crossed over. The jury is out on Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and Searchlight’s The Banshees of Inisherin. Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical movie launched in NYC and LA over the Nov. 11-13 weekend to a location average of $40,394. The film will face a major test over Thanksgiving, when it plays in roughly 600 theaters.

From Searchlight, Inisherin has certainly fared better than Tár, grossing $5.7 million as of Nov. 13 after increasing its location count from 58 to 895 in its third weekend, but it likely won’t come close to matching Birdman‘s domestic gross of $42.3 million.

On Nov. 18, Searchlight will bypass a limited strategy entirely and open epicurean horror-comedy , starring Ralph Fiennes, Anna Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult, in 3,100 cinemas — the widest release in the distributor’s history. MGM and United Artists’ Thanksgiving entry Bones and All, from acclaimed filmmaker Luca Guadagino, will expand nationwide on Nov. 23 after debuting in only a few markets on Nov. 18. The coming-of-age cannibal romance stars Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet.

Filmmaker Sarah Polley’s awards contender Women Talking — a more traditional arthouse film — has even decided to change its release plans in light of the tough marketplace for adult dramas. MGM and UAR revealed Nov. 17 they are pushing back the film’s limited opening in a handful of markets from Dec. 2 to Dec. 23. Women Talking is planning on expanding more slowly than many of its awards rivals in a bid to build momentum as various award nominations are announced after the first of the year.

Adds a rival studio executive on the specialty landscape, “It is grim out there.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.



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