Now playing in theaters around the world: A unique object lesson on how best to distribute and promote a sophisticated romantic comedy.

Call it a tale of three cities: Fine Line’s “Barcelona” opened in the No. 7 slot at the London box office the first week in February; Castle Rock’s “Before Sunrise” (originally titled “Vienna”) is playing in more than 400 theaters across the U.S.; and Disney’s “Miami Rhapsody” is pulling down an impressive $5,883 per-screen average during the first 10 days of its domestic platform release.

Each distributor wrestled with – and solved differently – the dilemma of how best to sell an auteur’s urban vision to the masses: Open a film in a few theaters and risk not capitalizing on an advertising and promotional blitz, or open in too many theaters and watch the film the before word of mouth takes hold.

For “Barcelona,” Fine Line employed a classic arthouse campaign that hoped to play on director Whit Stillman’s cult status with the New York press and build gradually from there.

By contrast, Castle Rock relied on the young adult appeal of Ethan Hawke to pump “Before Sunrise” into more than 300 theaters. And Disney approached “Miami Rhapsody” as its Miramax division would a Woody Allen film – gradually building from a limited bi-coastal engagement to more than 100 screens and then moving on from there.

“The tug with this kind of release is that you’ve spent a significant amount of advertising money which pushes you in the direction of opening wide,” notes former Fine Line Features president Ira Deutchman. “The risk of going too wide, too early, is that your per-screen average gets dented and the longevity of the run gets cut.”

Fine Line designed the marketing and distribution campaign for Stillman’s follow-up effort to “Metropolitan” in conjunction with Castle Rock, which also produced the film and is handling its international distribution. The story of Americans abroad started in a handful of theaters and built gradually to the point where it played in 240 theaters and topped $7 million at the box office.

Focus on helmer

With no recognizable stars in “Barcelona,” the director became the focus of the publicity campaign. The pic, which opened stateside in late July, was entering a crowded field in the arthouse marketplace, alongside Samuel Goldwyn’s “Eat Drink Man Woman” and Gramercy’s “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

“The issue was whether ‘Metropolitan’ would be an albatross and whether ‘Barcelona’ would be compared unfavorably to it,” notes director Stillman, himself a former foreign sales exec. “You can tell from the enthusiasm level of the publicity and marketing people what the predilection of the press will be.”

Stillman says that the success of the film’s release strategy had a lot to do with a superbly cut trailer and Castle Rock’s decision to buy network TV spots in key markets. The helmer will be making his next film, “The Last Days of Disco,” with Castle Rock, so the P&A budget on the film was clearly a long-term investment for the mini-major.

As “Barcelona” moves into foreign markets, Stillman, who lived in Spain for several years, will supervise the pic’s dubbing.

Meanwhile, Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” may have an easier time abroad than with its wide release at home, where the film’s per-screen average dropped 28% from its first to second week of release. The wide release was a gamble for Castle Rock, which didn’t want the film getting pigeonholed as a Generation X comedy. The mini-major is promoting the film as a date movie, rather than the third film from the creator of “Slackers” and “Dazed and Confused.”

The story of a French girl (Julie Delpy) and an American student (Hawke) who meet on a train and spend a night talking about life as they wander the streets of Vienna posed a marketing challenge: A film with weighty subject matter that featured a male lead whose constituency might find the subject matter too mature.

“We went wide in 350 theaters because I wanted to give Richard Linklater exposure on a national basis,” says Martin Shafer, president of Castle Rock Pictures. “No matter what happens on the domestic, this kind of exposure will help the video market, the foreign market, and it will help build a following for the filmmaker.”

“Sunrise” is currently playing in competition at the Berlin Film Festival. The film opens in Europe soon after the close of that fest.

Classic platform pic

David Frankel’s “Miami Rhapsody,” meanwhile, opened to great reviews and is developing strong word of mouth as its platform release slowly builds past 200 screens and per-screen averages stay strong. Disney’s job as that pic opens in foreign markets – starting in March and continuing through the fall – will be to tweak its marketing approach in each country.

In New York, Frankel may be hyped as the next Woody Allen, but in Madrid he will be positioned as the Anglo incarnation of Pedro Almodovar. And while the U.S. poster features stars Mia Farrow, Sara Jessica Parker and Antonio Banderas in equal proportions, in Spain, Banderas may be more prominent on the one sheet.