Perhaps we’re being a bit dramatic, but it certainly feels like the platform release is a relic of the pre-pandemic days.
For those unfamiliar, a platform is when a studio opens a film in a handful of markets – usually just New York and Los Angeles – then adds theaters in subsequent weeks with the hope that it will eventually play across the entire country.
For the purposes of this report, we consider a platform to be any film that debuts in less than 100 theaters and, at some point, expands to at least 1,000.
Before the pandemic, we could expect anywhere between 10 and 20 of these a year.
As we sit on the cusp of a new year, it is shocking to see that 2021 has produced only one platform film, THE FRENCH DISPATCH. It’s possible that LICORICE PIZZA, which opened on four screens and currently sits at 786 theaters, may become the 2nd film of the year to cross the 1,000 mark, but that’s still a far cry from the dozen or so that we’ve come to expect in a typical year.
There are several kinds of platform films, but here are the two main ones.
THE OSCAR-BAIT ROLL-OUT:
As we can see right now, December is a crowded month in theaters. Last week, for example, there were five new wide releases. If a studio has a film that looks like it has a chance to nab some Oscar nominations, it will release the film in a handful of theaters in late December to qualify for award’s consideration, then blast it wide in January when the box office is a bit quieter.
If the stars align, the film will reach peak saturation when the Academy Award nominations are announced in late January. This strategy was used for films like THE REVENANT, 1917, THE POST, and AMERICAN SNIPER.
THE ORGANIC ROLL-OUT:
In the past, when a studio had a film that may not have widespread appeal, they would slowly roll it out to gauge interest. If the film played well in New York and Los Angeles, they might expand it to another ten markets in week two. If it continued to attract audiences, the film would expand further to the top 25 markets.
This roll-out would continue as long as people showed up. However, the theater count would contract once the box office started to lag. In most cases, a film would hit its widest theater count in weeks four or five.
Ultimately, platforms are about the basic economic principle of supply and demand. A studio will intentionally suppress supply in the hopes that demand is high. If the calculation is correct, the film will play to packed theaters as audiences flock to buy one of the few highly coveted available tickets.Once equilibrium is met, supply shrinks to meet the waning demand.
So, why have platforms disappeared? Several reasons. First, these films usually cater to an older audience. As we know, in this current pandemic era, older audiences have demonstrated greater reluctance to return to theaters.
But there’s another, more fundamental reason. And that has to do with the main shortcoming of the organic roll-out.
The downside to a slow expansion is that if you happen to live in a small market, you might be out of luck if the roll-out doesn’t reach your hometown. You would have to wait for the film to be available on a streamer or home video.
Enter the streamers.Case in point, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH. This film was born out of the partnership between A24 and Apple. In the old model, A24 would have slowly rolled the movie out over several weeks. In the new model, the film will get a limited theatrical run before streaming on Apply TV+ three weeks later.
It ends up being a win-win-win for all parties. A24 still gets the air of prestige that comes from full seats in a handful of theaters. Apple gets the traffic to its streaming service, and the folks outside of the major markets get to see the film much sooner than had it gone through a traditional platform roll-out.
Today, more and more films that would have been candidates for a platform release have migrated to the streaming services. Netflix alone used the theatrical-to-streaming model for THE POWER OF THE DOG, TICK, TICK…BOOM!, DON’T LOOK UP and THE LOST DAUGHTER.
Netflix, of course, has been doing this for years now. It’s just, in this climate, it aligns with the way people are consuming films.
500 IS THE NEW 4
The studios that have historically lived in the platform space have mostly abandoned the slow roll-out for mid-size debuts or flat-out wide releases. Neon decided to open PIG in 552 theaters and SPENCER on 996 screens. Fox Searchlight launched THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE on 450 screens while Focus debuted BELFAST on 580. A few years ago, all of these would have started on four screens.
The pandemic has caused all kinds of disruption in the marketplace. We still don’t know what the new normal will be. While it would be great to see these slow roll-outs return to theaters, it may be that it’s a release strategy that simply doesn’t make sense any more.