Monday-morning quarterbacking is in full effect after Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” opened wide to $7.6 million after a week in limited release. The biggest single target of blame is distributor Annapurna Films’ choice of an August release date for the first film from the distribution arm of Megan Ellison’s high-flying production company (“American Hustle,” “Her,” “The Master”).
Lacking time travel, it’s impossible to predict what the alternative result would have been. But let’s start with the assumption that the team at Annapurna analyzed all options. A case can be made that, faced with a tough film to market, August contained a logic that a fall release did not.
“Straight Outta Compton”
What Made August Appealing?
Late summer brought both opportunity and precedent. Studio distribution operates under a number of preconceptions, with a heavy reliance on history. Key dates belong to the highest-budget releases that need worldwide success and near-simultaneous release. For films aimed in part or whole at African-American audiences, with African-American plots and creative players, there’s a perception (if not necessarily a reality) that they perform far better in the domestic market and find success in off-peak periods.
Martin Luther King Day weekend is one such perch; that’s when “Hidden Figures” went wide then this year, and grossed $170 million. “Get Out” did even better: Released February 24, it earned $176 million.
August has a similarly august history. In recent years, the month launched some of the biggest African-American-made and/or -themed studio releases of all time. With all grosses adjusted, consider “Straight Outta Compton”( $174 million), “The Help” ($190 million), and “The Butler” ($132 million).
And, unlike other recent Augusts that featured “Suicide Squad” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” this year lacked significant competition. So, Annapurna set its cap for August 4, in wide release. (The week-prior limited release was a last-minute add.)
The time period also marked the riots’ 50th anniversary, an element that any distributor might consider.
And then there’s the practical considerations. While Annapurna distribution is led by veteran Erik Lomis, a new company is not in a strong position to fight for prime-time shelf space (aka screens); it’s also easier to get media and audience attention on less-competitive dates. It also makes it easier for them to hold for the critical second weekend and beyond — of particular benefit given (according to audience surveys) strong audience response, particularly from African-American and older audiences. Other potential dates — including mid-October, holiday, and mid-January — would have greatly increased the risk of losing theaters.
Wouldn’t a Festival/Awards Season Release Have Been Smarter?
Let’s say the film was introduced a few weeks later, in the context of Telluride, Venice, and Toronto. North American festivals (unlike some others) tend to be known for their friendly receptions. As a Bigelow film with a compelling topic, it would have received elevated attention as well as instantaneous Twitter reaction. That can make a contender (“La La Land,” “Moonlight”) or break it (“American Pastoral,” “Cloud Atlas”).
All of the controversies endemic to the release of “Detroit” — its violence, attacks on the race of its director, criticism of tone and structure — would have been even more difficult to manage in a festival setting. The greater the anticipation, the more quickly anything newsworthy would enter social and other medias.
With its more-controlled rollout, Annapurna managed a more positive initial response. The initial Metacritic score was around 84, described as “universal acclaim.” That’s below the sky-high reactions to “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark 30” (and “Dunkirk”), but Annapurna launched its initial 20-theater, seven-city run on a positive note.
Today, its Metacritic stands at 78; it’s likely that the film would launch with that number if it faced festival play. An August open gave Annapurna a clearer shot at controlling the message, and helped them avoid the question of why they skipped the festival route.
Even so: It could have waited, with reduced festival play (perhaps AFI in November) and then a prime, late-year award release.
Here’s why that would be a bad plan. Reviews are good, not great (even a little disappointing, considering its pedigree), and controversy doesn’t buoy award chances. Given the Academy’s hypersensitivity to racial controversy, an earlier release that allowed the film to be seen in a less-heated atmosphere might actually help its odds. Then there’s the prospect of releasing an ultra-violent film around the ultra-competitive holidays.
Other Factors Weighing In
The company announced its distribution plans in March 2016. That’s a long time to wait to release a first film with the expense of maintaining a staff and being credible with exhibitors. The company has three more releases set of non-Annapurna productions (including Amazon’s “Brad’s Status” from Mike White) between September and November.
Also, as an independent production without a worldwide company, they are dependent of foreign deals that come with their own demands about release dates, which in a case of a film like “Detroit” pretty much require an U.S. release and hoped for success and acclaim first.