In the uncharted territory that is the 2021 Best Picture Oscar race, Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” may be the current front runner. The certainty is its release plan: Following last month’s one-week virtual cinema run for critic-group awards, Searchlight Films will open the Frances McDormand drama January 29 at a handful of IMAX locations nationwide, expand to more IMAX screens over the next two weeks, then add other theaters February 19 with concurrent streaming on Hulu.
In its previous incarnation as Fox Searchlight, the distributor won three of the last seven Best Picture awards (“12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” and “The Shape of Water”). Those wins, and strong contenders like “The Favourite” and “3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” shared strategic theatrical release patterns aimed at maximum attention and box office success. This year, circumstances demand that Searchlight change course — and find a way to be inventive that lets the film stand out.
We don’t know if it’s needed only this year, or if it’s the new normal, but here’s how Searchlight plans to get attention for “Nomadland.”
With New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston shut down, the classic platform release is impossible. Netflix and Amazon launched contenders like “Mank,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and “One Night in Miami” ahead of streaming ahead of streaming in whatever specialized theaters they could, but those dates attracted little attention.
For “Nomadland,” its first dates will be in six or seven markets, in eight to 10 IMAX theaters; it’s expected to reach most available IMAX locations. Initial dates will include two in the New York metropolitan area: Showcase Cinema de Lux in White Plains, and AMC Garden State in Paramus, NJ.
Intimate dramas don’t often get the IMAX treatment, and “Nomadland” has been noted for its visuals and sound design as well as its writing and direction. It broadens the film beyond its specialized niche, and as it expands to more theaters, high placement among box office charts would set it apart.
It will play standard theaters starting February 19 (subject to availability), giving it a presence most other contenders won’t have. Parallel Hulu availability will reduce its potential for core art houses, but Searchlight will prioritize many of them with dates in the hundreds, not the thousands. With nominations in late March and awards in late April, there’s enough time to allows for the potential of a typical expansion.
Adult-audience titles like “Let Him Go” and “The King of Staten Island” did well as Premium VOD releases, and Focus Features’ year-end contender, “Promising Young Woman,” debuted January 15 to strong initial interest. “Nomadland” likely would have as well; it might even have surpassed the PVOD interest of these films. As part of Disney, the distributor is willing to forgo that potential return in favor of the long game that comes with feeding its own streaming service (much as it did with “Soul” and Disney+).
“Nomadland” will be used to push subscribers to Hulu; it also enhances a marketing strategy that emphasizes the streamer’s specialized niche. It had great success with “Palm Springs” which played with only scattered drive-ins last summer, and also licensed Neon’s Best Picture Oscar winner “Parasite;” in addition to its Neon relationship, it also has post-PVOD runs for Bleecker Street, and Focus titles.
Most critically, this overall strategy reinforces that Searchlight, not Hulu, created the film (“Palm Spings” was a joint acquisition between Hulu and Neon, with the former seeing the major brand identification). Unlike Disney’s “Mulan” and “Soul,” which shunned theaters entirely, this hybrid release demonstrates that Searchlight intends to prioritize theaters.