If a movie doesn't show up at the theater, it's because the theater doesn't think it will make money, one filmmaker told us. batuhan toker/Getty Images Plus
I've Always Wondered ...

Not playing at a theater near you: Why are some movies so hard to find? 

Janet Nguyen Feb 16, 2024
If a movie doesn't show up at the theater, it's because the theater doesn't think it will make money, one filmmaker told us. batuhan toker/Getty Images Plus

This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

Listener Pearl Francoeur from Aurora, Colorado, asks: 

Every awards season I always want to know how the film studios decide to release their movies. I live in Denver and some of the ones that are up for awards don’t even get wide release. Conversely, some of the most poorly rated movies play for a really long time in numerous theaters around town.

Barbenheimer, last summer’s cultural juggernaut, dominated the box office, raking in a combined $2.4 billion worldwide. 

For U.S. moviegoers who were interested in the story of a popular toy’s existential crisis or a biopic about the creator of the atomic bomb, there was no dearth of theaters you could stop by to watch either Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” or Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” Both movies opened in wide release at thousands of North American movie theaters. 

But it can be more difficult to see less mainstream fare in theaters, even if they’re Oscar contenders, such as this year’s best picture nominees, including “The Zone of Interest,”“Past Lives” and “Anatomy of a Fall.”  

To be eligible for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, films have to at least be screened at some U.S. theaters. Current rules dictate that the movie must have a one-week theatrical release in six major metro areas, which include Los Angeles County, New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Miami and Atlanta.

Eligibility rules have changed for 2024 releases and require films to have a theatrical run for seven more days (consecutive or nonconsecutive) in 10 of the top 50 U.S. markets. “Non-U.S. territory releases can count towards two of the 10 markets,” according to The Academy.

The distribution pipeline can vary from film to film, depending on how much moneymaking potential it has. 

Rodney Hill, a film professor at Hofstra University, previously told Marketplace that distributors are considered the middlemen in the theatrical experience.  

“It’s like any other business,” Hill said. “Like in retail, you have the store, you have the people who make the products. But there’s that middleman, the distributor, that gets that product into all sorts of stores around the country.”

And getting that shelf space doesn’t come cheap. 

The economics of film distribution

Mitchell Block, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker and professor of documentary and film studies at the University of Oregon, said that opening a movie in multiple markets spanning at least 30 theaters can cost tens of thousands of dollars, including advertising. 

Block said that distributing international films, specifically, can be challenging because they are typically handled by small distributors. 

“The small companies don’t have the resources to open the film in that many theaters in that many markets,” Block said. 

He pointed out that as more companies consolidate, we’re seeing fewer and fewer distributors. 

He said some big film studios like Disney (which both produces and distributes movies) are able to sustain themselves because they are able to generate revenue through other sources, such as theme parks and a vast library of movies that they can license to streaming services. 

As for the theaters, they’re going to prioritize the movies that will make the most, Block said. 

These can include big-budget movies like “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” which played around the country, or other movies that’ll likely have a strong showing. 

But take a film like “The Zone of Interest,” an A24-distributed film about the Holocaust that picked up five Academy Award nominations. 

Susan Kerns, a filmmaker and an associate professor of cinema and television arts at Columbia College Chicago, said an awards contender like that might play in major markets first, and then later expand to smaller markets. 

“The Zone of Interest” played at the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and had a limited U.S. release in December.

“They need to have the week-long run, but they’re gonna wait a little bit because ‘Zone of Interest’ is a harder marketing sell,” Kerns said. “They use the Academy Award campaign to generate interest and encourage people to go see this film. So now that’s opening in wider release and is playing in many places across the country.” 

However, there are still theaters where you won’t be able to see it, much to the disappointment of cinephiles. 

“If they don’t show up at all, what that probably means is that the theater has decided it’s not going to make money there,” Kerns said. “They have done tons and tons of research about what tests well in different markets.” 

The movie “Past Lives,” which is also distributed by A24 and first came out last year, is currently available at some theaters, but you can also stream it through Paramount+ and Hulu. In cases like these, a movie might have limited rerelease locations because a streamer wants to attract subscribers, Kerns explained. 

Sometimes not having a movie widely available might even work in its favor. Kerns said the 2023 raunchy comedy “Bottoms” opened in limited release, but performed well in the theaters where it did screen.

“I think that in some ways the scarcity of it, not being able to see it right away, actually really helped propel its cultural cache,” said Kerns, who observed that her students were excited about the film. 

The question of movie accessibility

As streaming has gained dominance, theaters are facing an existential crisis. Those new Academy eligibility rules that will require films to open more markets are aimed at bolstering movie theater attendance. 

For advocates of the moviegoing experience, it’s tough to replicate that experience at home, especially for films that are meant to be seen in IMAX. 

Amid the pandemic, the number of movie screens in North America declined from almost 44,300 to about 42,100 — a loss of about 2,000 screens, according to data from the Cinema Foundation, a nonprofit created by the National Association of Theater Owners.

But the more pressing concern for Kerns is the shift away from physical media — she’s worried that people won’t be able to see movies through other means, even if it seems like streaming has made film viewing more accessible. 

She said that if you buy the digital version of a movie from a company, you face the threat of that film disappearing from your library if the company discontinues their relationship with the distributor. Sony, for example, had announced that shows from Discovery, such as “Mythbusters,” would no longer be available in PlayStation users’ libraries although the company ended up reversing course.

Movie fans are still championing physical media because it guarantees them ownership over a film and provides a higher-quality viewing experience. “ Just one week after its 4K Blu-Ray release, “Oppenheimer” ended up selling out.

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