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I'm interested in watching the upcoming documentary called Nuclear Now. Unfortunately, the producers have decided to only release it in a very small number of theaters. In NYC, it's shown for 1 day in 3 theaters and for 1 week in 1 more theater. Given such a limited release, it's clear that it's highly unlikely that the film makers will make much of a profit from in-person theaters. So... why not just make it available for streaming on Netflix or HBO Max or Hulu, etc? Or even just release it on Youtube if their goal is to maximize the number of people who will hear their message?

I can understand why this is the case with blockbusters but it doesn't seem to make sense for documentaries.

Update: the documentary was released to streaming in October 2023.

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    There is an endless list of theatres onhttps://www.nuclearnowfilm.com/watch , not a "handful". The basic premise of this question is false.
    – BCdotWEB
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 14:09
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    @BCdotWEB all of NYC has just one theater streaming the movie for more than 1 day. Compare that to how many theaters screen the latest blockbuster in the city. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 14:10
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    No matter how many theaters there are, the number by itself seems to be more of a marketing issue than just some artistic choice. There are several strategies that could explain that.
    – OldPadawan
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 14:19
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    if you want something people will talk about or fight for, make it rare. That's one technic :) If you want to minimize the risk of losing money, same : small number of theaters.
    – OldPadawan
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 14:22
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    You could re-cast this in a more positive light & maybe draw less backlash. "What are the benefits of a limited theatrical release for an independent movie?"
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 14:35

2 Answers 2

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There are release requirements for some awards, such as the Academy Awards and NY Film Critics Circle awards. This might be the biggest in-theatre release they could get and they went with it for award qualification and then it may move to streaming.

Another possible reason is that the distribution company may have agreements with theatre chains or other business reasons to release exclusively in theaters before going to a digital or physical release.

Finally, the producers may have an artistic or cultural preference for an exclusive theatrical release before any further releases.

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A limited release is usually a way to combine minimum financial risks with some maximum "bush telegraph" effect.

Limited theatrical release is a film distribution strategy of releasing a new film in a few theaters across a country, typically art house theaters in major metropolitan markets. The purpose is often used to gauge the appeal of specialty films, like documentaries, independent films and art films.

Now, according to the American Film Market:

For many independent filmmakers, whether or not their film reaches the big screen means everything. No matter the money to be made via television deals or the massive audiences possible with VOD, a theatrical release is where it's at. Seeing a film played in a theater is still regarded as the best way to experience the art form. It's also, understandably, the goal of many film producers. By looking at a complete set of films made in a single year, we can see how likely it is that a given film will realize that dream, and it turns out that there's actually a pretty good chance a film will play to a paying audience at some point, if that's what the film-maker sets out to do.

However, the numbers say that an independent film will, five times out of six, not go on to make much money in theaters. Knowing how to maximize revenue from the home market remains an essential skill for an independent producer.

There are also other reasons (even if they don't seem to apply in your case):

A common practice by film studios is to give highly anticipated and critically acclaimed films a limited release on or before December 31 in Los Angeles County, California, to qualify for Academy Award nominations (as by its rules). Highly anticipated documentaries also receive limited releases at the same time in New York City, as the rules for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature mandate releases in both locations. The films are almost always released to a wider audience in January or February of the following year.

So, no matter how many theaters there are, the number by itself seems to be more of a marketing issue than just some artistic choice. If you want something people will talk about or fight for, make it rare. That's one technic. If you want to minimize the risk of losing money, do the same: a small number of theaters. Combine marketing technics when needed.

More to read: Why Are Limited Release Movies Still A Distribution Method? -- Film distribution -- film distribution strategies (from legal POV)

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