This article is not meant for entertainment industry professionals who will undoubtedly know most of what I'm about to say. It's also not intended to be all-inclusive. There are entire books about this subject. It's for the casual observer -- someone who doesn't really follow the workings of the process and generally pays no attention to the man behind the curtain. Hopefully this will help you to understand some of the confusion that often stems from the fact that the movie you want to see isn't playing at your local cinema and may never will.
Depending on the size of the studio and clout of its owners and executives, a film may open in just one lonely theater or thousands of multiplexes. Most indies are introduced to audiences through "platform releases" -- a small numbers of locations to start with, expanding to more theaters later on. In more common vernacular, this would be known as an exclusive or limited release leading to an expansion or wide release down the line.
The film might open, say, in New York and Los Angeles only (extremely common) in what is usually known as an "exclusive" or "limited engagement." In the weeks that follow, it would add additional "markets" (cities, metropolitan areas, etc.), perhaps by population size ("expanding to the top 20 markets this Friday") or by a marketing guru's idea of where they will achieve box office success (college towns, for example).
There are many reasons why a distributor would choose a platform release, including the aforementioned clout (or lack thereof). Theater owners are much more powerful than most people realize and obviously want blockbusters on their screens -- the big Hollywood movies they know will get butts in seats. They are understandably less eager to take a chance on an indie from a small studio that is not as likely to make money for them, especially if the indie in question opens on the same weekend as a number of wide releases with big names from big studios. It's like shelf space in a supermarket. Coke and Pepsi dominate, and it's tougher for Joe's Soda to get a spot.
Another reason an indie will open in limited release is simply the cost of distribution itself. Prints (reels of film) cost money to make. Then they have to be delivered to (and picked up from) the theaters. Someone has to pay for that. It also makes little sense to open a film in an area where there hasn't been any advertising for it. The cost of prints and advertising is called P&A, and can often be as much as half or more of, and in addition to, the actual production budget itself. So the more theaters in the more markets the more money is needed. Therefore, in many cases it is simply the amount of money a distributor has which determine the number and locations of theaters showing the film.
Then people need to go see the movie. The more successful that film is in limited release the more money becomes available to help finance a wider distribution later on. In many cases the money is committed right from the start and the film's initial box office success isn't as critical to its future distribution pattern. But in some cases the amount of money it earns in those first few days or weeks is a major factor in determining whether or not the film expands at all, let alone where and how wide.
When a film opens in limited release the distributor will have a target number for box office receipts. Obviously the fewer the number of theaters the smaller amount of tickets can be sold. But the important figure here is theater average. Whether it's average per "theater" or per screen -- some theaters may show it on more than one screen, and that is taken into account -- there is a specific dollar amount they want to hit. If they don't, it can affect the future of the release in terms of its expansion.
In many cases the distributor has a commitment with theater owners to keep the film there for a certain number of weeks. The amount of money the theater owner gets increases the longer the movie is there, so they don't want it leaving as long as people are coming in to see it. On the other hand, they don't want it staying if the opposite is the case.
So those are some basic factors which go into determining whether or not a film expands from a limited to a wide release and how many theaters it goes to, where they're located, and when they get there.
There are hundreds of independent films released each year and as many different examples of their distribution patterns and box office success. Plans change. Small films become big ones, and movies expected to expand to wide distribution never do. Let's look at the best case scenario. Paramount's Paranormal Activity
opened in limited release in just 12 theaters. When it went wide three weeks later it expanded to 760. Just four weeks after that, at its biggest point, it was playing in 2,712 theaters. That was not planned nor expected. With a reported production budget of $15,000 (some say as low as $10,000) the film grossed $107,918,810 in 17 weeks of domestic distribution, $192,745,377 worldwide. Granted, this was technically not an indie. Paramount is a Hollywood studio. It was also a phenomenon that may never be repeated. But it's a good example of how distributors can be taken by surprise.
Now let's take a look at Fox Searchlight's Gentlemen Broncos,
which opened at two theaters on October 30. It was expected to expand over the next few weeks, but the box office just didn't justify it. At its biggest distribution it was in 18 theaters. After six weeks its theatrical run was done. Nobody knows how wide it could have expanded had it performed better but that's the reality. Its production budget was reported at $10 million. It made $113,682 domestically.
With those two examples in mind, let's examine the path being taken by an indie in limited release right now. The Runaways
opened in 244 theaters. Not a wide distribution, to be sure -- most people consider 600+ to be wide -- but certainly more than many limited releases. Instead of expanding
the following Friday, it dropped
to 237 theaters in its second week. In its third week (the one which just began) it dropped again to 84. By any measure this is not an expansion in number of theaters. The reported plan (after a couple of changes) was to have it open in limited distribution on March 19 and expand wide on April 9. As I first announced on my Twitter and this blog last Thursday, the estimated number of theaters being reported for April 9 is an increase from 84 to 200. Certainly not the wide expansion that had been announced. Since I broke the story, Box Office Mojo
, and others have confirmed that number.
What's going on? Taking into account everything discussed above, it shouldn't be too hard to figure out why a wide distribution for this film may have been scaled back or canceled altogether. Based on the reported number, the wide expansion for April 9 is obviously not happening. Clearly, if the 200 theater count number for April 9 is true that's a fact. Some say it's just been delayed and will take place at a later date. Certainly if there is an expansion to 1000 theaters on April 16, or 23, or anytime down the line, it's just happening on a delayed timetable. The answer seems to hinge, in part, on the veracity of the number being reported at BOM and indieWIRE. These are two of the most reliable sources for independent film statistics outside the studios themselves. The theater counts posted there generally come directly from the distributor -- in this case, Apparition. After BOM posted the number on Thursday there was a frenzy of activity among fans, particularly on Twitter, regarding whether or not this number was correct and if it represented the cancellation of the wide expansion. Now indieWIRE has confirmed that number (and this story). So that's where things stand at this point.
The number could be a typo on the part of Apparition, or whoever released the number. But that's highly unlikely. It could simply be an error. It might be an old number that was given out that was never updated. Theater counts are posted on Thursdays and maybe this coming Thursday another zero will magically appear and the number will be 2000. At this point it seems highly unlikely.
UPDATE THU 4/8 2:00 PM
: The official theater count as it's just been updated is now 204. The good news, it is indeed more than the 200 which had been reported. The bad news is, it's only four more. And the 200 was an "estimate" anyway. So the number was essentially correct as of this writing.
UPDATE THU 4/8 3:45 PM
: The complete list of theater counts for the week of 4/9-15 has been released and, as we reported one week ago, remains at approximately 200 (204, to be exact). The most popular source is Box Office Mojo
, a reliable site -- they are owned by IMDb, which is owned by Amazon.
Here is a partial
list of theaters I've received for The Runaways
on Friday, April 9. This list is NOT
complete. It was culled together from several sources:
Landmark Metro (Seattle, WA)
Regal Fox Tower Stadium 10 (Portland, OR)
Bakersfield Valley Plaza 16 (Bakersfield CA)
AMC 30 At The Block (Orange, CA)
Regal Village Square Stadium 18 (Las Vegas, NV)
Landmark Mayan (Denver, CO)
Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (Austin, TX)
Angelika Film Center (Dallas, TX)
Landmark Lagoon (Minneapolis, MN)
The Fleur Cinema (Des Moines, IA)
Landmark Tivoli (St Louis, MO)
Regal Hollywood (Sarasota, FL)
Terrace (Charleston, SC)
Landmark Midtown (Atlanta, GA)
Carmike Majestic (Chattanooga, TN)
Filmmworks Baxter Avenue (Louisville, KY)
Landmark Keystone (Indianapolis, IN)
Marcus Point (Madison, WI)
Majestic (Brookfield, WI)
Oriental (Milwaukee, WI)
Marcus Addison (Addison, IL)
Highland Park (Highland Park, IL)
Landmark Century Centre (Chicago, IL)
Landmark Main Art (Royal Oak, MI)
Dipson Amherst (Buffalo, NY)
Cinemagic Manor (Squirrel Hill, PA)
Merril's Roxy (Burlington, VT)
Chelsea (Chapel Hill, NC)
Colony (Raleigh, NC)
Regal Downtown Mall (Charlottesville, VA)
Railroad Square (Waterville, ME)
Patriot/Nickelodeon (Portland, ME)
Landmark Embassy (Waltham, MA)
Pleasant Street (Northampton, MA)
Triplex (Great Barrington, MA)
Landmark Sunshine (New York, NY)
Tilton 9 (Northfield, NJ)
Regal West Manchester Mall (York, PA)
Charles (Baltimore, MD)
Bethesda Row (Bethesda, MD)
Landmark E-Street (Washington, DC)
Regal Edwards University (Irvine, CA)
Celebration Cinema (Grand Rapids, MI)
AMC Easton Town Center (Columbus, OH)
Regal Downtown West (Knoxville, TN)
Cinemark At Valley View (Valley View, OH)
Regal Crocker Park (Westlake, OH)
AMC Loews Boston Common (Boston, MA)
AMC Loews Liberty Tree Mall (Danvers, MA)
AMC Loews 19th Street East (New York, NY)
Regal Delray Beach (Delray Beach, FL)
Regal South Beach Cinema (Miami Beach, FL)
Edwards Atlantic Palace (Alhambra, CA)
Regal Meridian (Seattle, WA)
AMC Loews Waterfront (Homestead, PA)
Cinemark at Robinson (Robinson, PA)
Regal Miracle (Tallahassee, FL)
AMC Interchange (Concord, ON)
Edwards Greenway Palace (Houston, TX)
Cinemark Woodlands (The Woodlands, TX)
Regal Eagan (Eagan, MN)
ShowPlace ICON at The West End - Reserve (Saint Louis Park, MN)
Regal Hollywood (Naples, FL)
Regal Gainesville (Gainesville, FL)
AMC Loews Shirlington (Arlington, VA)
Regal Green Hills (Nashville, TN)
UA Laguna Village (Sacramento, CA)
Coolidge Corner (Brookline, MA)
National Amusements (Revere, MA)
Providence Place (Providence, RI)
Frank Theatres Montgomeryville Stadium (Lansdale, PA)
AMC Elmwood Palace (Harahan, LA)
Many theaters (including ones NOT on this list) are now showing times on sites like Fandango. Go to Fandango.com, enter your city or zip code, and select Friday, Apr. 9 from the dropdown menu.
You can also try Movietickets.com, since each site often lists theaters that the other one doesn't.
You will notice that for some cities and zip codes it will say "Showtimes are not yet available in your area." You'll have to keep checking back.
Argentina ? 22 April
Singapore ? 6 May
Iceland ? 28 May
Estonia ? 4 June
Australia ? 15 July
Spain ? 10 September
Finland ? 24 September
Brazil ? 30 September
UPDATED: Thousands of words have been written on this blog about what I like to call "the wild and wacky world of independent film distribution." Even to veteran industry insiders, pundits, and prognosticators there often appears to be no rhyme or reason behind some of the puzzling decisions that are made by distributors. There are certain common practices and generally accepted ways of getting movies into theaters, but in today's rapidly changing business climate there are new models being created all the time.