When "A Simple Plan" opened in Baltimore theaters Friday, a simple question was begged.
What took it so long?
After all, the movie had already opened in New York and Los Angeles Dec. 11. Not only that, but "The Thin Red Line" opened in those same cities Dec. 23 and didn't arrive here until Jan. 15.
Is it something we said?
The truth is, Hollywood isn't singling out Baltimore. Each movie had different reasons for getting here so late, although both signal major studios' return to the kind of platformed release strategy usually associated with smaller companies like Miramax Films.
They also illustrate the way art and commerce blend in the cinema, where decisions are made for reasons as bald as cost-benefit analyses, or as subtle as an artist's mercurial temperament.
In the case of "The Thin Red Line," the highly anticipated adaptation of the James Jones novel from filmmaker Terrence Malick, the gradual schedule was a result of the studio's decision to buck convention, as well as Malick's own perfectionism. In the case of "A Simple Plan," the protracted opening schedule had more to do with dollars and cents.
For many filmgoers, the release of "The Thin Red Line" was an event on a par with the arrival of the next "Star Wars" sequel. Malick made a stunning debut in 1974 with the poetic, oddly nihilist "Badlands" and had intrigued audiences four years later with "Days of Heaven." But he hadn't made a movie in nearly 20 years when "The Thin Red Line" started production.
Malick, who had become something of a legend in the cinema world, had enlisted stars like Sean Penn, John Travolta and George Clooney to bring Jones' book to the screen, as well as a raft of hot up-and-coming unknowns. Critics, film writers and Malick aficionados were abuzz with the great one's return.
So why didn't 20th Century Fox take advantage of the legend and the buzz and blitz the country with thousands of prints of "The Thin Red Line"?
"We thought it would be treating this movie unfairly to do it that way," explains Tom Sherak, chairman of the domestic film group for 20th Century Fox.
Fox executives knew they didn't want to do a conventional mass-release of "The Thin Red Line." But they wanted the movie to qualify for Academy Award nominations. The plan was to open the movie on a handful of screens Dec. 23, getting a jump on the Christmas weekend competition, then rolling the film out slowly to other markets as favorable reviews and word-of-mouth took hold.
The strategy, known as "platforming," is more typically used for small art films than such high-profile projects as "The Thin Red Line."
Fox did open "The Thin Red Line" Dec. 23, but only in two cities, in New York and Los Angeles. Two more markets, San Francisco and Orange County, in Southern California, were added Christmas Day.
The problem was Malick's famous perfectionism. The director had been working on "The Thin Red Line" furiously, and didn't turn in a final print of the movie until the night of Dec. 21-Dec. 22, according to Sherak.
"The reason San Francisco and Orange County didn't open Dec. 23 was that we couldn't get more than three prints for the 23rd." ("The Thin Red Line" opened on two screens in New York and one in L.A.)
Two weeks later, "The Thin Red Line" arrived for exclusive engagements in Washington, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, Philadelphia, Denver, Toronto and Vancouver. These nine cities were selected not by population or demographics, but on the basis of their theaters.
"We opened in markets where there are still these beautiful, big theaters," Sherak says. "Because that's where you should see this movie. It's a beautiful picture and it's on this huge screen in this cavernous theater." (Sherak says Fox would have shown "The Thin Red Line" at the Senator, Baltimore's own landmark movie palace, had the theater not been committed to showing "The Prince of Egypt.")
If a city didn't have a movie palace, he says, then it had to have a centrally located theater. The message the studio has tried to convey, he says, "is that this is something special." Those cities probably would have had "The Thin Red Line" Christmas Day, he says, had prints been available.
Sherak adds that the movie's daunting length -- just under three hours -- contributed to Fox's decision to open "The Thin Red Line" gradually. Another factor was a movie called "Saving Private Ryan."
"It was coming on the heels of a a very successful and probably multiple-Academy Award movie" also dealing with World War II, Sherak says. "So we felt we had to be slower with it rather than wider with it."
The rationale behind Paramount Pictures' strategy for "A Simple Plan" was, well, more simple. Like Fox with "Thin Red Line," Paramount also wanted to avoid the crush of Christmas films, but wanted to open "A Simple Plan" early enough to qualify for Oscar nominations and major critics' 10-best lists. But when they decided which cities to open when, economics ruled the day.
"A Simple Plan," a dark thriller starring Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton, opened in New York and Los Angeles, as well as 22 other markets, Dec. 11 to generally strong reviews. And it indeed made its way to several 10-best lists, especially for Thornton's performance. So with all the good buzz, why did Paramount wait nearly a month before widening its release to other cities?
"When you're releasing a movie in a limited fashion, you obviously can't eliminate New York and L.A., New York being the media center of the world and L.A. being the film center of the world," explains Robert Friedman, vice chairman of the motion picture group at Paramount.
"Those are always first stops on the exclusive-run engagement path. Then as you're expanding, you select markets where you have an opportunity to succeed, not only from a critical perspective but also from a financial perspective. So you wind up selecting markets where your revenue projections clearly outstrip your expenses."
In other words, Paramount chose cities where the newspaper advertising was inexpensive enough, and projected grosses high enough, to make a healthy profit. (Newspaper advertising accounts for about 40 percent of movie ad dollars.)
In the case of Baltimore, The Sun's relatively high advertising costs made it necessary to wait until "A Simple Plan" had built up awareness, and thus potentially high attendance figures.
"You enter a market when you feel you're prepared to add more theaters, when a film has a bit more of a reputation and you have the ability to earn more and offset your advertising expenditures," he says.
"It's the cost of the market vs. what we can take out."
Tom Sherak, 20th Century Fox
Pub Date: 01/24/99