Movies today often have a hard time finding an audience because of how films are currently released.
Not only does a new film hit 3-4,000 theaters on opening day, it often comes out the same day overseas, meaning the first weekend better be boffo at the box office, or else.
Robert Evans, the producer of Chinatown and author of the Hollywood tell-all The Kid Stays in the Picture, once said that first weekend is like skydiving.
If the parachute, and the movie, doesn’t open, you’re dead. It used to be that a movie opened in the big cities first, then worked their way down to the suburban theaters, then played out at the drive-ins.
This changed in the mid seventies when Jaws opened on 409 theaters, which was a big opening then, and quickly became the biggest moneymaker of its time. Other studios quickly followed suit, and the rest is history.
Yet one new film, Hugo, which opened to rave reviews, has gone back to the old school way of opening a movie, which the L.A. Times called "a risky distribution strategy."
It opened in 1,277 theaters the first day, knowing it faced stiff competition Thanksgiving weekend from Twilight, and The Muppets for families. It then expanded to 1,800 theaters the second week, and it came in #3 in what’s still considered a weak box office period. (Deadline calls it the second worst weekend at the box office of 2011).
Graham King, the producer of Hugo, told writer L.A. Times Ben Fritz, "I feel this is not just a typical movie, but a masterpiece, and a masterpiece needs to be nurtured."
It was also noted that 3D movies don’t open in less than 2,000 theaters, making Hugo an even riskier proposition by today’s standards. Still, it gives hope that this kind of release pattern can be done today, and it can give a good film more time to grow and find its audience.