Studios Finally Experiment With Release Strategies, But Results Are Mixed

From Imax premieres to early home-entertainment debuts, studios are rewriting the rules for how to release movies — with mixed results.

The Walk” and “Everest” have presented radical breaks with traditional distribution strategies, and the coming weeks will bring fresh innovation involving films like “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension,” opening Oct. 23. Compelling television programming and an endless selection of online content are making it tougher than ever to get viewers into theaters, so it’s increasingly imperative to have a backup plan.

“You need to do something to break through the clutter in the marketplace to let people know this is the way to see a movie in a theater,” said Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment.

Major studios still haven’t found an alternative that works better than bowing a film on thousands of screens and seeing it live or die on its opening weekend results. “The Walk” debuted in Imax and premium format theaters, because Sony believed that the giant screens would goose interest for the setpiece tightrope walk. But it barely eked out $1.6 million over its first weekend.

A limited Imax and premium-format release for “Everest” did substantially better, earning $7.5 million in its inaugural weekend, but that failed to goose ticket sales when the picture expanded to nearly 3,000 theaters in the following frame. An exclusive Imax run of “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” was far more successful, and the company says it will focus on bigger franchises for any such runs in the future.

With “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” figuring to dominate the late December box office, Quentin Tarantino is countering with some showmanship of his own, bowing Western “The Hateful Eight” on Dec. 25 in a 70mm roadshow version, with six additional minutes of material. A shorter version will hit thousand of multiplexes two weeks later.

On the Menu
Distributors are choosing from a variety of recipes for film rollouts.
$51k Domestic B.O. for the opening weekend of Beasts of No Nation, which Netflix released on 31 screens Oct. 16, day-and-date.
$7m Domestic B.O. for The Green Inferno, which used data to maximize a narrower release.
$1.1m Domestic B.O. for June day-and-date release The Overnight from the Orchard; film has made $1 million in VOD revenue.

Eric Handler, an analyst at MKM Partners, said that the exhibition window has never been more important. “With the declining home entertainment market, a higher proportion of a film’s revenue is coming from its theatrical run,” he noted.

Then there’s “Beasts of No Nation.” Netflix made headlines when it plunked down $12 million for rights to the child soldiers drama, but despite awards buzz, the picture eked out a measly $50,699, for a per-theater average of $1,635, in its opening weekend. Calling the film a flop misses the point, however. It only appeared in 31 theaters in order to qualify for Oscars and was released simultaneously on Netflix’s streaming service, where the company says it is pleased with the viewership numbers.

On the Menu
Distributors are choosing from a variety of recipes for film rollouts.
$51k Domestic B.O. for the opening weekend of Beasts of No Nation, which Netflix released on 31 screens Oct. 16, day-and-date.
$7m Domestic B.O. for The Green Inferno, which used data to maximize a narrower release.
$1.1m Domestic B.O. for June day-and-date release The Overnight from the Orchard; film has made $1 million in VOD revenue.

What “Beasts of No Nation” will do is strengthen the hand of exhibitors. Most major theater owners refuse to show films that debut concurrently on-demand, believing they discourage attendance. The Netflix example would seem to prove their point.

But there may be a third way. Perhaps the most revolutionary studio gambit is Paramount’s partnership with AMC and Cineplex on the sixth “Paranormal Activity” and “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.” In exchange for giving exhibitors a slice of digital grosses, the studio will be allowed to debut the films on demand just 17 days after they leave most theaters. In theory, that allows Paramount to save on marketing costs.

But major exhibitors refused to show the pictures, which tracking suggests could cut opening grosses in half. Just as with “Beasts of No Nation,” they fear that the unorthodox release strategy will encourage customers to wait out a film’s theatrical run for its home-entertainment debut. That’s a concern Paramount is trying to alleviate with information gleaned from its new strategies.

“We have to know what the consumer wants,” said Paramount’s Rob Moore. “The business needs to evolve.”

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