The Platform Release Has All but Disappeared. Is That Hurting Films Like Spencer and Belfast? (Column)

Like casual social hugs and the daily commute to the office cubicle, the platform movie release has been a casualty of the age of COVID. You remember the platform release, don’t you? 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 healthy swell of positive reviews. At last, it would take off — in two or six theaters in New York and Los Angeles, where it would rack up a ginormous per-screen average.

In places like Variety, but also, at times, in non-entertainment publications, the news would be trumpeted with headlines like “Crown Jewel: ‘Spencer’ Is the Top-Grossing Limited Release of Any Movie This Year.” Those headlines, and the aura of success they imparted, would become their own form of publicity. The anticipation would build from there. And then, after weeks of teasing, bolstered by Oscar chatter and (perhaps) by awards from critics’ groups, the movie in question would finally be granted its wide release. It would be given entrée to that showbiz thunderdome known as… the mainstream. And from that point on, the box-office chips would fall.

I was never totally wild 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 hindsight, it’s a shock to consider that “Jaws,” on June 20, 1975, opened in 475 theaters — and that that, by a country mile, was the widest release any movie had ever received in the history of motion pictures. “Jaws” toppled the paradigm and changed the game. (Last weekend, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” opened on 3,700 screens.) It made the wide release into the new normal. Art films, on the other hand, still received smaller releases, and no one batted an eye. 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 age of Miramax is that “small” films 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 cinema. The platform release — putting a movie out on half a dozen screens, then expanding it to 50 screens, then 300 screens, then (if it did well enough) 1,000 screens — grew in importance. And the reason it did is that even the most popular and celebrated independent films were seen as requiring special nurturing. They were delicate flowers. What we once called the mass audience needed to be enticed into seeing them. But with the right amount of teasing, that audience would go and fall in love with these movies too. It was an all-good situation.

What a difference a pandemic makes, especially when it’s fused with a streaming revolution.

During the last month, some of the most acclaimed movies of the year have finally opened — the kinds of films that, not too long before, would surely have gotten platform releases. Instead, they’ve been opening wide, screen-bombed into 580 theaters (“Belfast”), 2,100 theaters (“Spencer”), or, after one week, 780 theaters (“The French Dispatch”). There are numerous art films and documentaries that still open on just a few screens, like “Bergman Island” or “The Rescue” or “Titane,” so it’s not as if the limited release has completely disappeared. And just this week, “C’mon C’mon” got a vintage platform opening.

But that’s still the rare exception. Looking at the numbers, what overwhelmingly strikes me about the wide release of films like “Spencer” or “Belfast” or, this past summer, the edgy knockout “Zola” (which opened on 1,470 screens over the Fourth of July weekend) is that, simply put, it is not working. This instant wide-release pattern may be linked to the pandemic (the perception that a movie now has to grab your attention or be consigned to oblivion). It may also be considered a kind of loss leader for streaming (a way to advertise a film for home viewing, and the box-office tally be damned). But it reflects a throw-it-out-there strategic crudity that is not doing these films any favors.

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

But the dream of the platform release, back when it was executed like a military operation, is that a worthy movie, one that just needed a little tender loving care, could also be a commercial movie. And that kind of is the dream of movies. It’s a popular art form, and was always meant to be one. (Films are too expensive not to be.) I can’t prove this, but 10 years ago I’m convinced that “Spencer” would have made $30 to $40 million. (In 2016, “Jackie,” Pablo Larraín’s earlier portrait-of-a-troubled-feminine-legend drama, made $13 million, and “Spencer,” given that its heroine is Princess Diana, is, I would wager, a decisively more commercial movie.) Instead, it’s limping its way toward $10 million.

I do realize that, due to the pandemic, older audiences for serious adult dramas remain more skittish about returning to the movies. That’s 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 season’s bona fide breakthrough indie hit. I personally think that the critics gave “The French Dispatch” a bum rap; they complained that it lacked a human dimension — but I would call it an entertaining gewgaw that, unlike Anderson’s other films, doesn’t pretend to have a human dimension. I applaud its success. ($12 million and counting at 800 screens.) But I’m sorry, there’s no way that an eccentric overstuffed curio like “The French Dispatch,” even given Wes Anderson’s following, 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 has not been allowed to build.

True confession: Back in the heart of the platform era (i.e., until about a year ago), I often used to wish that “small films” I loved — God, do I hate the term “small films” — could bypass the platform-release rigmarole and open the same way that a “Resident Evil” movie does. I used to wonder whether all that fussy care and tending was not, in fact, keeping “small films” small. Maybe they needed to open big so as not to be perceived as small. But I think I’m now done wondering that. In other words: Be careful what you wish for. Will the platform release make a comeback? Distributors want to maximize their own success, and if the new wide-release strategy is perceived to be floundering, who’s to say that the old strategy won’t become new again? Of course, the key factor behind all this may simply be the demon of streaming — the voice in viewers’ heads that now says, “If it’s not Bond or Godzilla or Ghostbusters or Marvel, why bother to go out to see it?” There’s no platform in the world that can support audience indifference.

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