I've never tried to hide my love of the Walt Disney company. They are, without a doubt, better than any other studio at marketing entertainment (Prince Caspian not included) to their target audience of kids and parents. In this pursuit, no one can touch Disney. But when it comes to marketing quality movies to Oscar voters and film snobs, a different studio takes the podium. Fox Searchlight is second to none.
For the past few years, they have been mastering a formula that takes small, artsy films and transforms them into solid box office performers. Slumdog Millionaire has already banked $31 million, and it's got a lot more on the way. The Wrestler is currently sitting with $2 million out of just 18 theaters, and expansion is inevitable. Both films are garnering major awards attention, but Fox Searchlight isn't rushing either of them into wide release just yet. Historically, that's not what they do.
No, the studio prefers to take it time, letting their films build up some major buzz and steam, and gradually increasing the theater counts. Actually, this is a trend that has only developed in the last five years, but Fox Searchlight has quickly discovered that if they properly pace the release of their films, they can maximize both their box office and their Oscar potential. Remember, no matter how pretentious and "cultured" the Academy Awards become, box office absolutely matters for the nominated films, and Fox Searchlight is no stranger to having their films nominated for Best Picture. In 2004, Fox Searchlight helped Sideways earn $71 million. In 2006, they pushed Little Miss Sunshine to $60 million. And in 2007, they pulled off the incredible feat of getting Juno all the way to $143 million. Keep in mind, we have here one film about wine tasting, another about a dysfunctional family traveling to a child's beauty pageant, and then one about a pregnant teenager. In terms of marketability, The Dark Knight these are not, and the fact that they were box office successes speaks highly of their quality and their distributor.
At this point, you could easily say, "Well, Fox Searchlight is just getting lucky," but I really don't think that's the case. Not only must they take chances on amazing scripts to produce, but they must go to festivals and purchase the titles they would like to distribute, and this studio is better than any other at picking artistic movies that audiences truly connect to. Between Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, Bend It Like Beckham ($32 M), and Napoleon Dynamite ($44 M), if there was one word that could describe all of these, it would be "heart." These are movies with characters that people want to root for. They are underdog stories with real emotion, and there is nothing more attractive to American audiences than a good come-from-behind hero. It works out well for Fox Searchlight because their movies are still artsy enough to garner major awards, but they don't have the dour, often grim, tone of other Oscar bait films. Their films are more accessible than something like There Will Be Blood or Babel, and their box office reflects this.
But it's not just the releases themselves that push these films to financial success, it's the way they're released. Fox Searchlight doesn't rush their films into theaters, and their movies certainly don't open with a bang and then fade quickly. The way they make money is more of a slow-burn. Fox Searchlight loves to keep their films in limited release for a while, before launching them into wider play. Sideways sat in limited release for a whopping 14 weekends before playing in over 1,000 theaters. Little Miss Sunshine played in limited release for four weekends, and Juno's theater count stayed low for three. Slumdog Millionaire hasn't yet played in more than 614 theaters, and it's been out for eight weeks. Why does this make sense? Well, by keeping these movies in limited release, Fox Searchlight assures that buzz will percolate and venue averages will remain high, which persuades other theater owners to want the film playing in their own theater. Thus, when the film is ready to expand, there are many people who want to play it. But Fox Searchlight doesn't stop there. Once their films initially move into wide release, they often continue to expand into more and more theaters. In fact, Juno increased its theater count six weekends in a row! After that, it's a long road of small drops on way to profitability and awards show success.