Robert Redford and J.C. Chandor at Cannes 2013 with "All Is Lost"
Robert Redford and J.C. Chandor at Cannes 2013 with "All Is Lost"
Robert Redford in "All Is Lost"
Robert Redford in "All Is Lost"

On opening day at Sundance, snubbed Best-Actor Oscar candidate Robert Redford's comments criticizing Roadside Attractions' handling of "All Is Lost" are still rippling through the independent community, much as Roadside would like them to go away.

Did Roadside Attractions do anything wrong in distributing the film? Compare Roadside's overall release plan to similar English-language limited-release films and the company did about as well as it realistically could have. Distributors make myriad decisions positioning their prime releases--release date, marketing, theater selection, expansion plans--but the initial grosses more often than not give a strong indication of a film's true potential. "All Is Lost" lacked traction from the start. Despite this, Roadside still managed to get the film played in enough theaters and accumulate enough gross to maximize its potential.

Roadside's Dennis O'Connor and Howard Cohen with producer Rebecca Yeldham
Roadside's Dennis O'Connor and Howard Cohen with producer Rebecca Yeldham

"All Is Lost" opened in six New York/Los Angeles theaters on October 18, 2013 for a gross of $93,000 and a per screen average of just under $16,000. As of January 16, 2014, the film had grossed $6.1 million total. Exterior factors had some negative impact on specific weeks, but given how the film launched, its longer-term performance shows that Roadside worked hard to overcome some strong initial limitations for their film. (Roadside declined a request to speak about Redford's comments.)

Here's a breakdown of Roadside's key decisions compared to similar releases:

1. Release plan: Roadside acquired "All Is Lost" before production, not after completion (partner Lionsgate owns a percentage of the company), so they controlled the timing of the film's exposure from the start. The film debuted at Cannes as an out-of-competition entry in the main selection in May, 2013. Limited films have opened immediately after their showings -- "Moonrise Kingdom" very successfully in 2012, "The Tree of Life" less well--but a film needs a big head of steam in order to justify this, which "All Is Lost," though well-received at Cannes, did not have. 

A summer opening ran the risk of being forgotten by the awards season (like "The Butler" or "Blue Jasmine," which didn't land a Best Picture nomination). Clearly the way to maximize advance anticipation for this film was end-of-summer festival attention. The film made its North American premiere at Telluride, where Redford received a tribute with much media coverage. They skipped Toronto (so did Cannes entry "Nebraska"), showed at the New York Film Festival later in September, and at Mill Valley in early October. Late September through December is the home ground of most awards contenders and any serious-minded, adult-oriented specialized releases. Roadside scheduling that time of year was logical and appropriate.

2. Specific date: They chose October 18. The weekends from mid-October through Christmas (though not the one closest to Halloween) usually see one or more new high-end contenders open in at least the two largest cities. The choice of date depends on how close to their festival bookings a distributor wants to be (in this case the New York Film Festival), the competition in the market at the time, how long a run they expect to be able to sustain (this involves how important Thanksgiving and Christmas playtime is and a film's ability to compete when far more films are playing and higher grosses are needed to hold over).

That weekend "All Is Lost" went against two other limited openings: "12 Years a Slave" (Fox Searchlight) and "Kill Your Darlings" (Sony Pictures Classics). "12 Years" opened a bit wider -- 19 theaters in several markets, as it played to both the usual specialized audiences as well as some theaters in African-American communities. Sundance favorite "Darlings" had a conventional two-city, four-theater release. "12 Years" received the best reviews of the year, better even than "All Is Lost" (respective Metacritic scores are 97 and 87). But no question "12 Years" received far more initial attention. It is possible that opening the same date did mitigate some of the impact of "Lost"'s great reviews, but the two cities in which it opened have tens of thousands of potential ticket buyers for a small pool of high-impact, upscale films. And then if a film gets any sort of good response, that can be made up for in later weeks.

One release date factor in the months before Oct. 18 (the requirements of booking top theaters and coordinating marketing are determined months ahead) was how well two other wide-release films, both ironically overlapping with the content of "All Is Lost," would perform both critically and in ticket sales. "Gravity," like "All Is Lost" a tale of harrowing individual survival, and "Captain Phillips," set on the open sea with a heroic lead character, opened in the two weeks before October 18, and likely provided more competition initially in those two cities than anyone could anticipate. But wait any longer, and things were only going to get worse.

3. Initial release pattern: Roadside booked this at six top initial theaters which all require long-term ties with a distributor and credibility for delivering significant-grossing films. With this comes the caveat that per screen averages (PSA) far above what most theaters across the country do first week are required, and come with the risk that if they don't happen, a film's reputation and ability to get more theaters could be damaged. But it's a risk than any distributor handling "All Is Lost" would have thought necessary to take, and Roadside did its job. The two city pattern, though not as de rigeur as it once was, still makes sense for films that need reviews to build national interest and aren't obvious candidates for the extra marketing costs opening initially in multiple cities requires. And with PSAs always lower when more cities open and possibly lowering the impact (media and otherwise) of a new film, going beyond the two cities initially would have been harmful to the film's future.

4. Expansion: Here's where things varied a bit, though not radically from the norm. Roadside added 82 theaters in about 15 new markets (and expanded some in their initial two), above what the average second week expansion would be. This in part allowed them to get elevated review attention in several other cities that had already shown "12 Years" the previous Friday, and with little else opening pre-Halloween, also meant less immediate competition. So if anything, this improved the film's presence and should have given it a better shot of awareness in those markets.

They then quickly expanded further -- to 130, 399 and 483 in the following three weeks. Why? I suspect the calendar had much to do with this, particularly in the later weeks. Any specialized film that is going to be able to hold through Thanksgiving needs to have stronger than usual grosses with all the new films opening at the broader range of theaters needed to reach these totals. So going slower ran the risk that if the film was grossing lower than hoped, it would have trouble getting anything close to the depth into the market the film managed to find in the previous weeks. It did occur against the "12 Years" expansion, which again likely had some impact, and "Dallas Buyers Club" also had an expedited release plan starting on Nov. 1. But competition always exists, and if a film has big appeal, it usually can find its share of customers irrespective of what else is out there. (An industry maxim also suggests that moviegoing breeds more moviegoing, so a moderately busy period might not so automatically be a negative.) In any event, they added to the gross total more than likely they would have by going slower.

5. Comparison to similar releases: Trying to figure out whether Roadside handled the film close to its potential requires understanding the context of their decisions and then comparing actual results. I looked at English-language initially limited-release films between late June and the end of the year ("All Is Lost"'s window) for the past two years. Then I checked which of these opened in nine or fewer theaters in the two cities and had an initial PSA of over $10,000 with an eventual gross of over $1 million. There were only 23, including big studio major year-end releases like "Zero Dark Thirty" and "American Hustle" that never were considered to be lower-gross niche films like "All Is Lost" and most of the rest.

I then took the initial theaters' gross and PSA and compared it to their ultimate gross. Why? Because normally there is a correlation between opening gross and eventual performance, affected of course by vagaries including word of mouth but more significantly the level of support a distributor sustains for a film. It isn't unusual for a film to have its further expansion cut back because of disappointing results, or expanded further because of initial success, by studios pushing hard for awards and using heavily advertised additional theaters as part of their campaigns. What a distributor who hopes to sustain long term success does is to try to find some medium between maximizing a total gross while keeping their costs to a level justified by the response.

The reality is that "All Is Lost" had a very weak initial response in New York and Los Angeles. Its PSA just under $16,000 and total gross of $93,000 was considered disappointing compared to the acclaim, Redford's name and potential awards ahead. It was slightly reduced by its six rather than more common four theater run, which needs to be accounted for in any analysis. But the result was a PSA below nearly all other films surveyed. When comparing the total gross (higher because of six total theaters), it still ranked in the bottom third.

Based on this, the film would have been expected to attain an eventual gross of $3 to 5 million. The year before, "The Sessions" (Fox Searchlight) opened in four of the same theaters with a PSA of $28,400 and a gross of $113,000, both considerably better than "All Is Lost." (Searchlight spent far more heavily.) It ended up with the same gross, $6 million. Last spring, the Redford-directed and starring (along with a large cast of well-knowns) "The Company You Keep," (Sony Pictures Classics) opened in five theaters with worse reviews and managed a PSA of $26,300 and a gross $132,000 -- and that film, despite playing in more theaters (807 at its widest) only managed to get to $5.1 million.