Studios Ponder Perils, Payoffs Of Platforming

Studio distribution execs are rethinking the platform release, the time honored marketing strategy in which a film is initially released on a limited number of screens to grab press and build word of mouth.

Increasingly, distribs are wary of the strategy’s high risk: Because platforming essentially involves releasing a film several times, the opportunities increase for failure as well as for success.

Meanwhile, national magazines and TV infotainment shows review and plug films as soon as they open in New York and Los Angeles. Since the rest of the country can’t yet see the platformed film, that publicity has to be regenerated when a pic goes wider.

If the platform works perfectly, as in the case of 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” the film is bathed in honors and makes a ton of money.

But more often than not, it doesn’t. Buena Vista’s “Quiz Show” and Columbia/Castle Rock’s “The Shawshank Redemption” went the platform route, and despite a clutch of strong reviews and major media attention – two key elements in the success of the strategy – neither film was able to expand beyond a core limited appeal.

“There are a lot of reasons why you never want to do a platform,” says Universal distrib/marketing senior VP Nikki Rocco. “But in truth, some films demand specialized handling, and it’s the only shot a studio has to reach the audience that will respond strongest to the picture and create momentum.”

One of the reasons a platform can be daunting is the risk vs. the cost. Obviously, it’s more efficient to release a film with 1,500 or more playdates and blitz the country with national TV spots than to play single screens in New York and Los Angeles – which still require pricey full page ads and parading the stars on network talkshows.

“We actually bought some television on ‘Cobb’ when it opened,” says Warner Bros.’ Barry Reardon about that platform release. “There was just no other way to get the message across to people that it was in theaters. You have very little breathing room and an extremely short period of time to get people’s attention.”

So why the anti-platform bias? The underlying dilemma is that each step of the expansion is predicated on the effectiveness of the prior phase. The greater the number of waves, the more likely that something will go awry. And when momentum grinds to a halt, subsequent theatrical potential quickly evaporates.

For that reason, “generally you’re dealing with the obvious when a platform is being considered. … Star-driven films, genre pictures and sequels generally don’t require very specialized handling,” says Fox senior VP Tom Sherak.

Fox decided that “Nell,” starring Jodie Foster, would benefit from a limited late-year release and an expansion early in 1995. Initially, the wild child drama was going to open with a handful of dates, along with other studio Oscar hopefuls such as Paramount’s “Nobody’s Fool” and TriStar’s “Legends of the Fall.” But the combination of strong early previews and Foster’s marquee value saw a change in the original strategy, which had called for a second wave of 300-400 playdates on Christmas Day.

Sherak said that under ideal circumstances, that was the right way to open the picture. But he was confronting a glutted marketplace. The fear was that “Nell” would be lost in a sea of wide holiday releases, and that with fewer than 500 situations it would be difficult to justify the level of ad dollars and placement it needed to compete. So Fox sought additional playdates, and the second phase grew to about 800 screens. After four weeks, the film grossed $14 million at that platform.

Need fourth-estate attention

The industry consensus is that without media support there’s simply no way for platform pictures to swim effectively into the mainstream. But good reviews and conspicuous profile pieces are no guarantee a picture will cross over – as proven by “Quiz Show” and “Shawshank,” even though they opened at a less competitive time of year.

At Christmas, when platforms are plentiful in order to qualify pictures for Oscars, it’s doubly difficult to get attention. Even in cases where a picture receives an initial wave of acclaim, it can still be forgotten by the time the second, wider assault on the nation’s theaters is set.

“Cobb,” “Immortal Beloved” and “Nell” moved into their second waves a week ago. “Cobb” continued to struggle as it expanded from nine to 35 screens and grossed a decent B.O. of $220,000 for a $6,300 average. Warner Bros, will wait to see whether Tommy Lee Jones gets an Oscar nom before it makes its next move.

The yarn of the baseball legend has been an uphill fight, in part because it failed to get the type of reviews that can galvanize interest. Similar critical response was accorded “Immortal Beloved,” Columbia’s biopic of Beethoven. Yet “Beloved” continued to play better than anticipated as it climbed to 81 dates from an initial round of four and had a per theater average of $19,700.

But the most perplexing of the trio remains “Nell.” Now in about 1,200 situations, it’s playing on the cusp between breaking out and sinking into the abyss. And daily tracking is like watching a rollercoaster ride that cannot be predicted.

Now the industry will be closely scrutinizing “Legends of the Fall,” which opened Christmas Day on seven screens and expanded to about 2,000 runs on Jan. 13. “Legends” has been the strongest of the holiday platforms, gaining momentum its second weekend and carefully orchestrating its media coverage. A strong first weekend in initial wide release would be a major asset toward Oscar nominations. That, in turn, would translate into commercial stamina demonstrating that the perils of platforming are sometimes worth the risk.

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