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Limited release is a term in the American motion picture industry for a motion picture that is playing in a select few theaters across the country (typically in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago).
A limited release is often used to gauge the appeal of specialty films – especially of documentaries, independent films and art films. A common practice by major film studios is to give highly anticipated and critically acclaimed films a limited release in December in New York and Los Angeles in order to qualify them for an Academy Award nomination, as set out by the rules outlined by the Academy. These films would often receive a wider release later in January or February.
A platform release is a limited release strategy, whereby the film opens in only a few theaters, then gradually expands to more theaters as word of mouth spreads and the marketing campaign gains momentum. Depending on the film's success, there is even the possibility to expand into a wide release. The advantage of this strategy is that marketing costs are conserved until a film's performance has been established. This way, if a film turns out to be very popular or critically acclaimed, the distributor may opt to spend more money than originally planned and push for a wider release; if the movie flops, the distributor can withdraw from the campaign without having spent much money promoting and advertising the film.
In the early stages of a platform release, the key metric is the per-theater average gross, not the total box office gross. Art house and independent movie theaters like to see a high per-theater average, as proof that they will be successful if they release the film. A distributor using this release strategy must take care that they do not expand the release too quickly: If a film is successful early on, many theaters will be interested in playing it; but if the distributor releases the film into too many theaters at this stage, the limited audience will be spread over multiple theaters, lowering the per-theater average and making the film appear weaker.
In the modern Japanese music industry, the term "limited release" is also used to denote a musical release that will be produced in limited quantities only. A limited release therefore differs from a limited edition, as the former implies that there will be no alternative or second issuing.