The Vanishing Platform Release: Has It Hurt ‘Spencer’ and ‘Belfast’?

Like the casual social cuddles and the daily commute to the office cubicle, the platform’s movie release has been a victim of the COVID era. You remember the launch of the platform, right? It used to happen quite a bit this time of year. A movie with a major independent distributor, like Searchlight or A24 or Neon or Focus, would begin its journey down the runway, bolstered by excited media features and a host of positive reviews. Finally, it would take off, in two or six theaters in New York and Los Angeles, where it would accumulate a huge average per screen.

In places like VarietyBut also, sometimes, in non-entertainment publications, the news was announced with headlines such as “Crown Jewel: ‘Spencer’ is the highest-grossing limited release of any movie this year.” Those headlines and the aura of success they conveyed would become their own form of publicity. Anticipation would build from there. And then, after weeks of teasing, bolstered by Oscar talk and (perhaps) awards from critics’ groups, the film in question would finally get its general release. It would give in to that showbiz thunder known as … the mainstream. And from that moment on, the box office chips would fall.

I was never totally crazy about this ritual. It went back to an old model: the way studios released movies in the pre-blockbuster era, before “Jaws” changed everything. In retrospect, it is a shock to consider that “Jaws”, on June 20, 1975, opened in 475 theaters and that, by a mile, it was the widest opening of any movie in movie history. “Jaws” toppled the paradigm and changed the game. (Last weekend, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” premiered on 3,700 screens.) It made general launch the new normal. Art movies, on the other hand, still received smaller releases, and no one was fazed. Who in their right mind was going to open “The American Friend” or “My Dinner with Andre” or “Kagemusha” on 1,000 screens?

But starting in the late 80s and early 90s, with the rise of the independent film revolution (which actually started much earlier, but you know what I mean), the limited release for smaller films took on a new meaning in the industry. The essence of the Miramax era is that “small” movies became big business. They were released to make a lot of money, to become crossover hits, and many times they did.

This was good news for the cinema. The launch of the platform – putting out a movie on half a dozen screens, then expanding it to 50 screens, then 300 screens, then (if it worked well enough) 1,000 screens – grew in importance. And the reason it did is that even the most popular and celebrated independent films were deemed to require special care. They were delicate flowers. What we once called mass audience needed to be tempted to see them. But with the right amount of teasing, that audience would fall in love with these movies too. It was a very good situation.

What a difference a pandemic makes, especially when it merges with a broadcast revolution.

Over the past month, some of the most acclaimed movies of the year have finally been released, the kinds of movies that, not long before, would surely have had platform releases. Instead, they’ve been opening wide, bombarding the screen into 580 theaters (“Belfast”), 2,100 theaters (“Spencer”), or, after a week, 780 theaters (“The French Dispatch”). There are a ton of art and documentary films that still open on a few screens, like “Bergman Island” or “The Rescue” or “Titane,” so it’s not like the limited release is completely gone. And just this week, the Joaquin Phoenix awards bait darling “C’mon C’mon” had a vintage platform opening.

But that’s the rare exception. And looking at the numbers, what draws my attention to the wide release of films like “Spencer” or “Belfast” or, last summer, the shocking “Zola” (which premiered on 1,470 screens during the weekend of April 4). July) is that, just put, not working. This instantaneous, widespread pattern may be related to the pandemic – the perception that a movie now has to get your attention or be relegated to oblivion. It can also be considered something of a loss leader for streaming (a way to advertise a movie to watch at home, and to hell with the box office count). But it reflects a strategic rawness of throwing it around that isn’t doing these movies any favors.

Of course, you could say that I’m getting defensive about the fact that “Spencer,” a movie I adore (much more than “Belfast”), isn’t exactly setting the box office on fire. It’s a familiar feeling to me since the platform era. A movie he believed in would break records on a small number of screens, and everyone would be thrilled. Then it would open wide, and the numbers would be meh. That happened all the time.

But sleep from the launch of the platform, when it was run as a military operation, is that a dignified film, which only needed a little affection, could also be a commercial film. And that kind of it is the dream of the movies. It is a popular art form and it was always meant to be. (Movies are too expensive not to be.) I can’t prove this, but 10 years ago I’m convinced “Spencer” would have made between $ 30 million and $ 40 million. (In 2016, “Jackie,” Pablo Larraín’s previous drama about portraying a troubled female legend, made $ 13 million, and “Spencer,” given that its heroine is Princess Diana, is, I bet, much more of a movie. commercial). Instead, he’s hobbling his way toward $ 10 million.

I realize that due to the pandemic, older audiences of serious adult dramas are still more nervous about going back to the movies. That is a factor, no doubt. Yet it hasn’t hurt Wes Anderson, whose new film, “The French Dispatch,” after receiving some of the most dyspeptic reviews of his career, is the true indie hit of the season. Personally, I think the critics gave “The French Dispatch” a rough patch; complained that it lacked a human dimension, but I would call it an entertaining marvel that, unlike Anderson’s other films, does not pretend have a human dimension. I applaud your success. ($ 13 million and counting on 800 screens). But sorry, there’s no way that an overloaded eccentric curiosity like “The French Dispatch”, even considering Wes Anderson fans, should be a more commercial movie than “Spencer.” Kristen Stewart is arguably the front-runner in the best actress race (and deserves to be), but the heat around that movie hasn’t been allowed to grow.

True Confession: In the heart of the platforming age (that is, until about a year ago), I used to wish the “little movies” I loved (God, I hate the term “little movies”) could bypass the rig . – Drop gibberish and open the same way a “Resident Evil” movie does. I used to wonder if all that fussy care and care wasn’t, in fact, keeping “little movies” small. Maybe they needed to open up in a big way so as not to be perceived so small. But I think I’m done wondering that now. In other words: be careful what you wish for. Will the launch of the platform return? Distributors want to maximize their own success, and if the new overall launch strategy is perceived to be failing, who’s to say the old strategy will never be new again? Of course, the key factor behind all of this may simply be the demon of transmission: the voice in the viewers’ heads that now says, “If it’s not Bond or Godzilla or Ghostbusters or Marvel, why bother going out to see him?” There is no platform in the world that can withstand the indifference of the audience.

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