Why Are Limited Release Movies Still A Distribution Method in 2018?

The Florida Project and Call Me By Your Name were films damaged by this antiquated distribution strategy.
Call Me By Your Name
By  · Published on January 31st, 2018

The Florida Project and Call Me By Your Name were films damaged by this antiquated distribution strategy.

Limited released films have been a staple of Hollywood. The idea comes from a film distribution strategy of releasing a film in select markets. Spend a few dollars to have the film screen in NY and LA, and then the decision can be made to expand following the reception of the film. This tactic is also used to give award-worthy films a chance to qualify for the Academy Awards. Per the Academy’s rules, these films should be released by December 31st in LA to qualify. These films get a bigger release after the holidays in January (for example The Post and Phantom Thread).

That concept might work for films with stars like Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and Daniel Day-Lewis, but for films featuring virtual unknowns like Timothee Chalamet and Brooklyn Prince, it doesn’t work. The studios that release films like Call Me By Your Name and The Florida Project were hoping for major award recognition to launch into bigger territories, but by then, the pre-release hype and the desire to view the films had diminished. Audiences were frustrated that the movies never played in their market and had resorted to illegal streams or passed on the films altogether. In an age where VOD and streaming exist in so many homes, there needs to be a new solution to this antiquated distribution strategy.

Word of mouth is still a successful way to market a film. Get Out is an easy example of that method working its magic. The film opened with little pre-release hype and became one of the biggest films of the year due to positive reviews and social media buzz. That would be the ideal situation. Years ago, movie studios didn’t want to manufacture expensive film reels for a movie they were timid on. That isn’t the case in 2018. Getting eyes on a feature film is easier than ever. Digital is king and the cost of shipping a film today is less, due to the investment in digital systems where DCP playback is the norm. The whole endeavor of releasing a film has become less expensive. This makes a staggered film release that much more frustrating.

Frustrating is the perfect word for how limited release distribution works. As someone who doesn’t live in one the bigger film markets myself, there have been countless times over the last fifteen years where I’ve traveled for these features. In fact, The Florida Project is one such movie where I visited a theater an hour away to catch the film. There are countless others who have felt the dismay over a hot new film not being available in their market.

The Florida Project had its share of woes being a limited release feature. Director Sean Baker has been active on Twitter sharing when and where the film would play as he received countless inquiries from aggravated fans. It even got so bad he addressed public inquiries to leak his feature online.

For people around the world, the desire to watch the film was strong. Piracy hurts all films, but especially ones of this size. These films don’t have the marketing budget of the newest Marvel movie and inherently have a smaller pool of interested patrons. When those patrons pirate the film before its release date, the chances of them going to the theater to see the film are reduced. (Note: The Florida Project is now available in Digital HD on streaming platforms, please support the creators.)

Call Me By Your Name, by all accounts, should have seen better business than it has. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the film was kept quiet until its resurgence at the Toronto International Film Festival. There, the film wowed critics all over again.

The film was in an excellent position to make good on high critical appraisal and receiving the most Independent Spirit Award nominations. According to Deadline, Call Me By Your Name had the year’s highest per-theater average opening at $101,219. That surpassed the previous record for 2017 limited box office made by Lady Bird. The release for Call Me By Your Name was on Thanksgiving weekend. Nine weeks later, after the dust had settled and Call Me By Your Name earned a Best Picture nomination, the film was released in a paltry 800 theaters. The results of that modest expansion saw the box office of Call Me By Your Name decreasing following the Best Picture nomination. The limited release had backfired on Sony Pictures Classics.

Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and even YouTube are providing easier access to small and mid-sized films that would suffer from a limited release roll out. The buzz for films is immediate with Facebook and Twitter giving audiences the world over instant reactions to films. That is when hype is at its peak and their needs to be a more efficient way to capture that buzz and turn it into views.

Paramount is exploring new strategies for their risky endeavors, but that means more eyes than ever will view Alex Garland’s Annihilation two weeks after opening. Paramount sold the international rights to Annihilation to Netflix who will stream the picture seventeen days after its domestic release. YouTube announced that they’d gained Joseph Kahn’s Bodied and will give it a limited release and then put it on their YouTube Red service, making it more convenient for audiences to catch the movie if it wasn’t playing in their market. These streaming services are using the profile of these movies to drive subscriptions, but in an age where studios still rely on limited release to create buzz, the move to streaming isn’t all that bad.

Audiences are tired of hearing about a film they can’t see. Social media has influenced our lives in countless forms. The way we experience news and how we hear about the latest movies is instantaneous. Word of Mouth doesn’t need the same amount of time to build, films like The Florida Project and Call Me By Your Name needed to be in front of as many eyes as possible within days of release, not weeks. Every year there are films that half the country never saw. There needs to be a change. Otherwise, small films will continue to suffer.

Related Topics: ,

News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.