Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” opened in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, to high-end results. Now, United Artists wants to continue the slow burn with single-screening previews in three cities — while the rest of the country must wait until Christmas Day.
Tickets will go on sale this morning for one preview showing Saturday night, December 4, at two Alamo Drafthouse locations: the New Mission in San Francisco and South Lamar in Austin. Tickets are also on sale for a single Saturday-night screening at the Music Box in Chicago. These are anticipated to be 70mm presentations. This remains a work in progress; more previews seem likely, but for now there are no announced plans for further showings.
“The point is to build momentum and word of mouth for the film, while still keeping to the original plan of making it available to most people at Christmas,” says Erik Lomis, president of distribution at United Artists Releasing.
Based on initial results, the “Licorice Pizza” strategy is crazy like a fox. The 1970s San Fernando-set film grossed $335,000 in four theaters in 70mm this weekend (three days). With a per-theater average of $83,852 that would be outstanding even in ordinary times. Even more impressive: “Licorice Pizza” played on only one screen per theater, and most of these theaters would not be utilized in a standard New York/Los Angeles openings.
Opening this weekend gave the film a chance to get more attention, particularly as initial groups prepare to allocate awards. In past years, titles like “The Shape of Water,” “The Artist,” and “The Darkest Hour” opened at this time and generated successful theatrical play as well as major Oscar wins.
Similarly, it’s smart strategy to delay wide release until Christmas; the period between Thanksgiving and mid-December is the longest dead zone in the theatrical calendar, but its story of youthful infatuation was expected to appeal to a wider audience than “The Master” and “The Phantom Thread.”
This weekend’s opening provided proof of concept with an audience that was 75 percent age 35 or younger; it’s an older crowd that typically buttresses limited expansions this time of year. Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” also opted for December 25 and drew large numbers of younger viewers.
“Licorice Pizza” will expand to 1,800 runs or more on Christmas Day, the largest release for any Anderson film. That suggests sincere faith in its ability to find an audience but as with all non-franchise titles, the trick is to make it stand out. United Artists is doing that right now with “The House of Gucci,” which is seening initial response that’s by far the best since the pandemic for an adult-oriented non-IP or franchise release.
It is a risky strategy — but in these times, what isn’t? Most high-profile releases this awards season reached broad audiences quickly, in some cases with an eye toward early home platform release. “Spencer” (Neon), with Kristen Stewart as a leading Best Actress contender, opened in 996 theaters; Premium VOD began after its third weekend.
It’s all uncharted territory; even more so, with the the Oscar calendar delayed a month. Traditionally, the slow rollouts begin between late November and Christmas; runs go widest in time for nominations mid-January. This year, nominations come in February 2022 and the widest breaks must move to the period with the potential for the best response. This year that means a less-competitive Christmas, with fewer new releases.
For United Artists, opening limited at Thanksgiving, then going at Christmas may be the rare opportunity to have your pizza and eat it too.
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