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Let’s do launch

Go wide or stay tight: Studios try to juggle clashing game plans

New Line opened “Little Children” on five screens. Six weeks later, it has yet to expand beyond 37.

Fox opened “A Good Year” on more than 2,000. Two weeks later, it was on a small fraction of those.

Distribution and marketing plans have different pitfalls, but the key questions remain the same: When you open a film, how wide should it go, how do you build momentum — and, most urgently, how do you avoid getting egg on your face?

This is especially tricky in the specialty sector, where most pics start as limited releases. Distribs hatch all sorts of plots to goose per-screen averages, working to persuade exhibitors to book a pic into wider release.

Still, pics from “Babel” to “Bobby” discover the perils of transitioning to wide release. Even films that seem to have everything going for them get lost in the shuffle, from tentpoles like “Flags of Our Fathers” to prestige pics like “The Last King of Scotland.”

These problems can affect any film, but it’s particularly treacherous in the fourth quarter when 66 films will open in the year’s final six weeks.

Films competing for broad audience attention range from “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “Blood Diamond,” which have awards aspirations, to chick flicks like “The Holiday” to family lures such as “Eragon” and “Charlotte’s Web.”

For specialty films with awards hopes, the movie must maintain momentum through January or beyond.

One tack to take is to get out there early, planting a flag before stiff competish hits. It worked last year for Focus Features’ “The Constant Gardener” and again this season for Yari Group’s “The Illusionist,” a pic that looked like a leftover when it didn’t sell at Sundance.

But “Illusionist” — produced by Michael London (“Sideways”) and Brian Koppelman and David Levien (both “Ocean’s Thirteen” scribes) — has made $40 million, in part thanks to an August date rather than one in the fall free-for-all.

Besides deciding to get the pic out in August — and away from a similarly themed studio rival, “The Prestige” — Yari and David Dinerstein also spent big on its 51-screen launch. Since the film was from a company that many exhibs didn’t know, the big blitz helped persuade them to book the film into wider, more mainstream engagements.

In its first weekend, “Illusionist” conjured a per-engagement average topping $18,000. A week later it jumped to 144 screens; by its third frame, it stood at 971 engagements.

However, coaxing initial per-screen averages — either by aggressive marketing or booking theaters that cater to core auds — can only do so much.

“You can’t buy a good per-screen average,” says one industry vet. “The per-screen average is your test. Then do you stick with, change or abandon your plan?”

Some pics start slowly, expand to healthy numbers, retract and then find fresh life in the awards season.

Others land with such a resounding thud that by Monday morning, they’ve been left to the wolves.

And no distribution strategy can overcome public disinterest.

Fox — the studio that released blockbusters “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Borat” — stumbled badly with its Nov. 10 2,066-screen rollout of Ridley Scott’s romantic comedy “A Good Year.” For its third weekend starting Dec. 1, the pic was reduced to fewer than 150 engagements after having earned $7.2 million.

Another wine comedy, “Sideways,” was the biggest hit in Fox Searchlight’s history. However, big Fox rolled out “Year” as if it were a Russell Crowe vehicle with wide appeal.

Starring Crowe as a Brit broker who inherits a vineyard in Provence, the pic bowed in a marketplace already chockablock with arty alternatives, many of which were also foundering to find their auds.

“Year” suffered from an identity crisis. How do you market a movie to the Beaujolais set from the director and star of “Gladiator?” Mixed reviews turned off the older crowd, while audience polls indicated that Crowe’s female fans — a key demo for the pic — weren’t amused by his off-screen antics.

Sometimes a film has to stick its head in the sand and wait out the competish.

New Line is keeping a tight lid on its suburban drama “Little Children”: After eight weeks, its widest release was 37 screens. (It’s dropped since then.) And the studio doesn’t plan to go much wider until after the New Year has seen its initial awards nominations and crix lists.

Fall is traditionally the time for films with weighty issues. Many have had trouble connecting this year (“Catch a Fire,” “All the King’s Men,” “Fast Food Nation”), but awards clout might help convince auds to mobilize for some other serious pics.

Fox Searchlight watched its well-reviewed “The Last King of Scotland” launch well, only to get lost as it expanded. Its “History Boys” is also struggling for attention.

Meanwhile, the specialty studio’s summer breakout, “Little Miss Sunshine,” is buzzed as an Oscar sleeper.

Buying a dysfunctional-family film for $10 million at Sundance looked like a risk. Ditto the Searchlight game plan of a July rollout opposite “Miami Vice,” “The Ant Bully” and “Scoop.”

Powered by solid reviews, the pic tested the waters on seven screens to a per-screen average of $53,000. Searchlight then went to 58, maintaining $25,500 per screen. At 153 screens in week three, the specialty arm still pulled in more than $17,000 per screen.

By then, company execs knew they had the goods and hit the gas pedal. Screen counts rose to 691 and then nearly 1,500.

One distribution pro says a limited release must use markets like antennas, receiving information that tells you how far a pic might go. But “Sunshine” had another advantage — subject matter that was comedic, not dour.