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. Since 1994, a limited theatrical release in the United States and Canada has been defined by Nielsen EDI as a film released in fewer than 600 theaters.
The purpose is often used to gauge the appeal of specialty films, like documentaries, independent films and art films. 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.
One notable exception is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which premiered in 1975 and is still shown only in limited fashion; it is the longest-running theatrical release in film history.
A platform release is a type of limited release in which a film opens in fewer theaters (typically 599 or fewer) than a wide release. If the film receives positive word of mouth, it is gradually expanded to more theaters, as the marketing campaign gains momentum. A successful film released in this manner has even the possibility of expanding into a wide release.
The advantage of the strategy is that marketing costs are conserved until a film's performance has been established, when the distributor may opt to increase advertising and push for a wider release. On the other hand, if it initially flops, the distributor can withdraw from the campaign, thus minimizing advertising and promotional expenditures.
In the early stages of a platform release, the key metric is the per-theater average gross, not the total box office gross. Arthouse and independent films that garner high per-theater averages are seen as likely candidates for a successful wider release. A distributor using this release strategy must take care not to expand too quickly in the early stages to prevent the (limited) audience from being spread too thin, which would reduce the per-theater average and so cause the film to appear weaker.