Why Many Indie Films Are Ditching Limited Releases and Opening Nationwide

·6 min read
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The fall box office will foster new experiments with Oscar contenders, testing how many theaters on which to open a film.

Traditionally, a film with Oscar buzz starts out with a release on just four screens in Los Angeles and New York, followed by a slow rollout to the top 10 markets and then eventually nationwide as the screen count rises to a few dozen, then a few hundred and eventually as much as 2,000-plus, depending on how well it is doing in the awards race and with specialty audiences.

But that’s not happening this year. Between COVID-19 damaging turnout to art-house theaters and older audiences that support awards contenders showing more reluctance to buy tickets, both distributors and analysts tell TheWrap that they are trying a different approach to an indie distribution pattern that’s been in place for decades. Exactly what the best approach is for each film is the challenge facing the industry.

eyes of tammy faye jessica chastain
Jessica Chastain in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” {Searchlight Pictures}

Over the past couple of weeks, two of the big indie players settled on the same strategy. Focus Features’ “The Card Counter” and Searchlight’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” started out with a release on 450-plus theaters. “The Card Counter” has grossed $1.9 million from 584 screens through two weekends, while “Tammy Faye,” which is getting Oscar buzz for lead actress Jessica Chastain, grossed $675,000 from 450 screens.

Focus distribution chief Lisa Bunnell said that, for now, a targeted nationwide release of 400-500 screens is the studio’s preferred release strategy for this fall. In fact, she’s uncertain when or even if the traditional rollout plan will become common again for indie films as it isn’t clear how indie and prestige titles will perform in this post-shutdown environment.

“Along with our usual art-house partners, we are also looking at initial releases in more upscale theaters to expand our opening weekend screen count,” Bunnell said. “It might be that this becomes the new normal. We don’t know. At a time when social media can amplify festival buzz, depending on the film, it can be worth it to try to release the film in as many top markets as possible to capitalize on that interest.”

Another major change from pre-pandemic times for Focus is that the indie distributor, along with parent studio Universal, now has agreements with top theater chains guaranteeing 17 days of theatrical exclusivity — after which the studio has the option to release the film as a digital rental. Neither Universal nor Focus are planning on immediately exercising that option on their films just after that 17-day window, but the option gives Focus more incentive to eschew the slow multi-week release strategy in favor of a wider opening to get a better sense of audience interest and whether a film could potentially leg out at the box office for several weeks.

Searchlight doesn’t have Focus’ theatrical window deals, but distribution chief Frank Rodriguez agreed that a 400-plus screen launch is a sound strategy for specialty distributors to consider as the market continues to stabilize. He said that his team was pleased with the $1,500 per theater average that “Tammy Faye” received this past weekend and believes that’s a solid number given the state of the indie box office. (“The Card Counter” averaged $1,792 per theater on its opening weekend.)

“From the AMC in Lincoln Square [in New York] to the Regal Stonecrest in Charlotte, we’ve found theaters where we were second only to ‘Shang-Chi’ this weekend in tickets sold,” Rodriguez said. “That’s a really encouraging sign to us that we are reaching a broader audience and that we can roll out to about 1,000 runs next weekend.”

But if the film has critical acclaim and a proven filmmaker, the traditional rollout strategy may make a comeback as the Oscar race heats up. Searchlight plans on releasing Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” on 30-50 theaters in the top five to seven markets when it opens October 22. Anderson’s last two films, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Isle of Dogs,” garnered strong box office and Oscar buzz, and “The French Dispatch” received critical acclaim at Cannes.

Another advantage of a more gradual rollout for “The French Dispatch” is that it allows Searchlight to avoid direct competition with Warner Bros.’ “Dune,” another festival favorite opening wide on thousands of screens on October 22. Rollouts, along with building audience interest, can allow a film to avoid competition in cities with major releases.

Rodriguez expects “French Dispatch” to be out nationally on November 5 — when Disney/Marvel’s “Eternals” opens wide. “Even though we will have wide competition for younger audiences,” Rodriguez said, “we saw strong under-35 audiences turn out for ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ back in 2014, so we think that it can get a broader audience over the course of that rollout while encouraging older moviegoers to see it in art-houses.”

Another film coming out of the festival season is Focus’ “Belfast,” which is directed by Kenneth Branagh and won the coveted Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Since 2012, the winner of the Audience Award has gone on to at least earn a nomination for Best Picture, with “12 Years A Slave,” “Green Book” and “Nomadland” winning the top prize.

That makes “Belfast” a major contender in this year’s Oscar race, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see it become a test subject for rollout releases. For now, Focus plans to open the film on November 12 but is weighing its options on just how wide that release will be.

But no matter what happens with “Belfast,” Bunnell and Rodriguez both agree that it will be a months-long, multi-film effort to convince older audiences that support art-house films that it is safe to return to theaters. Some help might also come from big-budget films like “No Time to Die,” as the James Bond series has traditionally drawn larger turnout from older audiences than top tentpoles like Marvel movies and Universal’s “Fast & Furious.”

“If we see ‘No Time to Die’ get a really broad turnout, then I think that’s going to be really encouraging for the entire industry,” Bunnell said. “Up to this point, there haven’t really been a lot of films trying to encourage people over 50 to come back to theaters and now those are finally coming in. At some point we have to reach out to people of all ages if we really want to convince people that theaters are safe, because they’re never going to come back if there isn’t a diverse offering of movies to watch.”