Word of Mouth: A patient approach to box office draw and awards

Patience isn’t always Hollywood’s strong suit. Agents boil over in tantrums, executives chase hot screenplays like jackals and directors yell for everybody to hurry. But when the holidays roll around, the film business can display some surprising composure.

The forbearance is part of the industry’s platform release strategy heading into Oscar season, whereby many films with awards hopes are introduced in just a few cities at a time. Unlike lowbrow blockbusters, blitzed into thousands of multiplexes on opening weekends, these artier movies — “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan” among the most popular these days — may premiere in no more than four theaters at first, in the hopes that positive buzz can propel them into a remunerative national showcase and perhaps an Oscar win or two.

The slow-as-molasses tactic, almost solely practiced by specialty film labels such as Fox Searchlight, can yield box-office fortunes if a movie builds momentum like a runaway train, as in the case of “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Juno.” But when audiences (and critics) reject a film in the early phase of a limited release, the movie can die out before the film reaches scores of big cities, as happened with “Never Let Me Go,” “Fair Game,” “Conviction” and “The Tempest.”

Even when a platform release appears to be working, filmmakers may pester distributors to speed things up. The complaint is usually some variation of this: Our star did “The Tonight Show,” but my mother still can’t see the film in St. Louis.


“We get it on every single film,” says Steve Gilula, co-president of Fox Searchlight. “And it’s gotten much more intense because of the Internet.”

The platform release is well-suited to Academy Award hopefuls, because the approach works best with critically acclaimed films: If you don’t have good notices, it’s almost impossible to stand out in December, when dozens of highbrow works flood cinemas.

“There’s more danger at the end of the year than there is success. If you go into that arena, you better be better than ‘Spartacus,’” says Jack Foley, the distribution head at Focus Features, which successfully released “The Kids Are All Right” in a platform this summer and is now trying to do the same with “Somewhere.”

Foley says the ideal platform release works like a rolling snowball, the movie becoming more culturally important as it expands across the country. In theory, the film’s early adopters begin a conversation that transcends (and is much cheaper than) advertising, as like-minded moviegoers praise a new film to one another. “You have to look at each market like a television transmitter,” he says.

Big studio films often can be sold in something as simple as a title or a poster, but with more complicated art films, even long television commercials can’t explain what they’re really about — you need the first wave of ticket buyers to spread the word personally. It’s a critical component for movies often aimed at older customers, who don’t normally run to the multiplex on opening night.

“It’s very difficult to take a genre-defying film like ‘Black Swan’ and distill it into a 30-second spot that will make people want to go see it,” Gilula says.

Instead, the studio introduced its film (about an obsessive ballet dancer) into 18 theaters on Dec. 3, hoping its glowing recognition at fall film festivals would translate into ticket sales. The turnout was remarkable — an average of more than $80,000 per theater in its debut weekend. Fox Searchlight accelerated the speed of “Black Swan’s” subsequent rollout, taking the film to nearly 1,500 theaters over Christmas, rather than the initial plan of about 700.

The Weinstein Co. is enjoying similarly encouraging results from “The King’s Speech.” The drama about King George VI’s relationship with his speech therapist premiered in four theaters on Nov. 26, taking in more than $88,000 per location. The movie will expand from 700 theaters to about 800 this weekend, with about 1,500 locations set for the weekend of Jan. 14. The studio also will broaden its platform release of “Blue Valentine,” a troubled marriage story, from four theaters last weekend to about 400 by Jan. 14.

David Glasser, the chief operating officer for the Weinstein Co., says that with any platform release it pays to be patient. “You want to be careful that you don’t come on too strong,” Glasser says.

The platform release is equal parts art and science. Executives will hand-pick theaters in individual cities, tailoring the locations, down to specific neighborhoods, to match a movie’s core audience.

When Focus opened the lesbian romantic comedy “The Kids Are All Right,” it added Chicago to the first wave of theaters in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, pitching the film to the Windy City’s sophisticated film community, which has a large gay segment. Paramount Pictures wanted to position “The Fighter” not as a male-oriented boxing movie but as an emotionally satisfying tale for women. In a quick platform (one week in four theaters, before opening wide), the studio was able to do just that: 53% of “The Fighter’s” ticket buyers in its first wide weekend were women.

The platform strategy became popular in the 1990s, when movies such as “Shakespeare in Love,” “The Full Monty” and “Good Will Hunting” built slowly from limited openings into national hits. But that was before social media, e-mail and texting came to prominence, meaning that positive buzz spread more slowly.

To some filmmakers, the platform release may be a relic of another era. “In the old days, word of mouth did build slowly. These days, it’s not true,” says Jim Stern, a producer of 2009’s “An Education.” He felt Sony Pictures Classics could have expanded the film’s release faster. “You had people clamoring to see it, and no one could see it.”