Over the next two weeks, we’ll see theatrical releases for two of the year’s most important specialized films. On August 6, Amazon opens the Leos Carax musical “Annette” starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, which premiered in Cannes on opening night. Apple opens “CODA” August 13 — the most expensive Sundance acquisition ever and the festival’s top prize winner this year.
These important titles at key film festivals are now in the purview of their streaming distributors. That turns what was once a relatively straightforward proposal — promoting a film’s theatrical run — into something much more complex, even political. How does a streamer distribute a film that was made to be seen in theaters while not undermining the reason that it bought the title in the first place — i.e., to tempt the public to subscribe so they can see it at home?
It’s an awkward equation, sometimes courtesy of the filmmakers themselves: At Cannes, Carax told IndieWire’s Eric Kohn that “streaming is hell,” which isn’t the nicest thing to say about the company that spent more than $15 million to make your arthouse musical. In 2014, Indomina Media distributed Carax’s “Holy Motors” to 65 screens; Amazon is expected to give “Annette” the widest North American release in Carax’s career with two weeks of exclusive theatrical play before it debuts on Prime August 20. By comparison, “CODA” will reach fewer theaters and debut day-and-date on Apple TV+.
Netflix was the first streamer to attempt the balance the demand from directors and cinephiles (and elevate legitimacy for awards consideration) against their own business models. The strategy gained prominence with “Roma” in 2018 when it opened the film in New York and Los Angeles, added the top 10-20 markets in the second week, and then released wider — with limitations imposed by major circuits. It opened November 21, debuted on Netflix December 14, and at its widest played in perhaps 125 theaters.
Like the pioneers at Netflix, Amazon will not reveal theater counts; nor is it expected to release box-office results. Based on ticket sites and theater websites, “Annette” will play between 100-200 theaters nationwide. These include the IFC Center and Film at Lincoln Center in Manhattan as well as The Landmark and multiple Laemmle outlying locations in Los Angeles.
Coverage is spotty outside the biggest markets, although “Annette” will play Albuquerque, Orlando, and the Palm Springs area. Netflix has a “where to buy tickets” site when it releases a film in theaters; Amazon does not, though a dedicated page for “Annette” ticket-buying is live.
In New York, Carax will make sold-out Q&A appearances Friday and Saturday; Ron Mael and Russell Mael of Sparks, who co-wrote and composed music for the film, do the same at The Landmark in Los Angeles Sunday.
“CODA” will open in 40-plus theaters in the top 20 markets, with a handful of dates to be added the following week. Landmark, Laemmle, Alamo Drafthouse, and Cinemark are among the companies playing the film. Bleecker Street serves as the hands-on distributor.
As a hugely popular film out of Sundance 2021 and acquired for a record-breaking $25 million, “CODA” would be a highlight of the year for specialized theaters in the pre-streaming world. Written and directed by Sian Heder, the crowd-pleasing drama deals with the 17-year-old hearing daughter in an otherwise deaf family.
For decades, films like “CODA” or “Annette” would likely see an initial platform release before playing wider. Today’s short-to-nonexistent windows do give specialized theaters one advantage: A film like “Roadrunner” also plays chain theaters, but these titles will have exclusive runs with little to no theatrical competition. This is particularly true for “CODA,” which should have strong word of mouth and less competition from the less-subscribed Apple TV+.
Specialized theaters have a history of playing in tandem with streaming; their local loyalists also may not be as attuned to streaming availability. More exclusivity and, with “Annette,” pre-streaming access is better than wide play and same-day release.
This is a work in progress and the awards season will see further tinkering. Distributors suggest they may return to longer windows for some titles to build momentum and establish them as audience successes. That’s a theater’s unique advantage and it may be specialized exhibition’s best hope for survival.