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When “Juno” came flying out of the gate in Gotham and L.A., Fox Searchlight knew it had a bona fide specialty hit.

But it was the grosses in the second and third weeks, in places like Indianapolis, Albany and Monterey, that certified it as a crossover.

The fate of a limited release once it rolls out beyond its coastal comfort zones is a delicate and maddening thing for companies with tens of millions at risk. As the number of releases and their awards ambitions skyrockets, the egos on the line can cause releases to go too fast or not fast enough.

The uncertainty results in marketing snafus such as companies that buy TV spots and run trailers for a pic in a certain market, but end up not opening the film there.

“If your second and third waves don’t work, you won’t get a fourth wave,” says Steve Gilula, Searchlight’s chief operating officer and a former arthouse exhibitor. “That’s what has changed in the past two years. It used to be that your customers would take care of your movies, but now they’ll take you off because they know somebody else has something that’s doing better.”

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The process of making limited titles into event films for flyover country is a poorly understood part of the film biz. At this time of year, though, it is a process that must be reckoned with by pics now plotting their courses, among them “There Will Be Blood,” “The Orphanage” and “Persepolis.”

Steven Friedlander, distrib chief at Warner Independent and chief architect of the “March of the Penguins” release, calls platforms “an organic thing. People ask at the beginning, ‘What’s your plan for week 5?’ I say, ‘Show me week 4.’ You constantly have to react.”

Unlike wide bows where after opening weekend it’s on to the next pic, he adds, “Everyone in our business, no matter how well they’re doing, is looking at the grosses and saying, ‘I should have pulled back here or added runs here.'”

Among the riddles to solve:

What regions to emphasize? Films that skew older and have gentler themes play stronger in the Southeast. Gay themes find support in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

How many locations in a single market? Some films concentrate their releases geographically, but stack up multiple runs in the same city.

Can the film be supported by advertising or must it wait for word of mouth or publicity to catch up? Films like “Eastern Promises” or “Michael Clayton” spend a week in Gotham and L.A. but blow out wide quickly on the strength of robust ad buys and promos from latenight talkshow bookings and the like. Textbook platform releases and word-of-mouth pics take their time — think “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

This season, platforms have been especially crucial. Until “Juno,” “Atonement” and “No Country for Old Men” started cranking after Thanksgiving, specialty numbers were worrisome.

Some theaters in smaller cities were taking extra prints of “Enchanted” rather than roll the dice on fare better suited to the big city. Titles from “Reservation Road” to “In the Valley of Elah” to “I’m Not There” to “Margot at the Wedding” never reached the broad audiences their distribs envisioned.

In “Juno’s” initial weeks, Gilula, who has presided over Searchlight hits like “Little Miss Sunshine” and 2007’s “Once” and “Waitress,” made calculated gambles that paid off.

Its expansion from five markets on Dec. 7 to 30-plus on Dec. 21 included some crucial theater-by-theater decisions.

In San Francisco, rather than opting for a classic, old-line arthouse like the Clay, where “Atonement” took up residence, Gilula booked the Metreon, a larger complex known for balancing commercial and arty fare.

In Minneapolis, sensing the Upper Midwest appeal of Canadian star Ellen Page and the film’s obvious youth hook, he booked the Uptown, a multiscreen arthouse venue in a hip part of town where local tastemakers would serve as viral marketers before a planned TV ad buy hit.

Middle America’s support, despite “Juno’s” theme of teen pregnancy, elevated the pic to hit status. Of its 300 locations in week 3, one interesting factoid is that Indianapolis was No. 67 thanks to a recently opened Landmark complex there. In the second week, out of 40 runs, none grossed less than $27,000.

The “Atonement” release has been handled differently, but with solid results. Focus distribution chief Jack Foley, who has handled pics from “The English Patient” (in his Miramax days) to “Lost in Translation,” says he has taken a kind of Jackson Pollack approach.

“I always deliberately make mistakes,” he says, recalling the second week of “Brokeback Mountain,” when he booked two unlikely dates in Plano, Texas. “You can’t get priggish about market exploration. … The worst that can happen is you get trapped and never transcend your core.”

Foley is a spirited former exhibitor given to extolling — in his distinctive Waltham, Mass., accent — the hidden venues in obscure towns. He cites Miami as one surprising winner for “Atonement” — “Usually you have to go to the tony suburbs or outlying areas, like Boca Raton, to get the strength but Miami has been good,” he says.

After a 32-screen, 18-market bow Dec. 7, the pic quickly started to grow and, with a significant TV ad plan providing support, Foley started exploring places like Greensboro, N.C.; Lexington, Ky.; and Tucson, Ariz. There wasn’t much fat. Just four of the 583 venues as of Jan. 10 had grossed less than $2,000, while 66 dipped below $3,000.

Foley rattles off the numbers like a bingo announcer: “Colorado Springs, $15,981; Rochester, N.Y., $15,500; Norfolk, Va., $15,100.”

While it significantly trails “Juno,” which also plays to the lucrative teen aud, the $20 million-and-counting period melodrama “Atonement” is one of the specialty arena’s few beacons of late. But its limited days are officially over. On Jan. 11, it joined the big boys, expanding to some 900 runs and looking to repeat its recent entry into the top 10 B.O. chart.