How Advance Screenings Helped Form a Strategy for ’12 Years a Slave’

The critical hit changed release plan after well-received screenings

Variety’s cover story this week is on Chiwetel Ejiofor, the star of Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” While the film has been earning raves since it’s secret premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, followed by winning the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, it’s also succeeded at the box office, more than doubling its $20-million budget.

But it was never expected to be an easy sell, as it delivers an unflinching view of a dark chapter in American history. Developed by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, the film was independent co-financed by River Road Entertainment, New Regency and Britain’s Film 4. Dede Gardner, a producer at Plan B, says a big part of the strategy was finding the right distributor. And their hope was to partner again with Fox Searchlight, who had worked with Plan B on “Tree of Life.” Says Gardner, “It’s a group of people I know really well and admire and think are film lovers first. I dreamed they would be at the helm of this one. Fortunately, when they saw the film, they agreed.”

SEE ALSO: Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Career in Pictures

According to Brad Weston, President and CEO of New Regency, the team knew they had a special film, and advanced screenings of the film only confirmed their beliefs. “In February, Steve and a group of us screened the movie in three different cities back to back to back, three nights in a row,” says Weston. “It was something I had never done before in all the movies I’ve worked on. And we learned so much in that week that it was just, it was remarkable.”

Elaborates Weston, “We screened it in the South for an all African-American audience. We took it to the Midwest to an urban audience and an art house audience. And then we played it on the coast for an art house audience. And we got a real sense in that three day period how the movie was. And then we did it for an all African American audience in Los Angeles as well and we got a real sense in showing the picture that the film appealed to a broad audience and it wasn’t just an art house film and it wasn’t just an African-American film.”

Following the screenings, Weston says they began to formulate their strategy, “I think before that, we had planned a late December release,” he reveals. “And once we saw the picture play during that period, we formulated a new strategy to take it to Telluride and Toronto and New York Film Festival.” He admits some of this was out of necessity, as both Pitt and Michael Fassbender had work commitments in the fall, and this gave them an opportunity to support the movie. “We just thought it was a really terrific strategy to get out early in October with the picture and the platform release that we did.”

Weston and Gardner are both understandably thrilled with the result. “It’s remarkable how people have responded to the movie,” says Weston. Agrees Gardner, “You care deeply about the film and about how it’s reaching the world. You’re not entirely control of it, the audience is on the other side of the table. You do your best up until the point you release it into the world and you sit back and hope for the best.”

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