Limited release is a term in the American motion picture industry describing the marketing strategy of playing a new film in only a select few theaters across the country, typically in major metropolitan markets.
A limited release 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 in order to qualify for an Academy Award nomination (as set by its rules). These films are almost always released to a wider audience in January or February of the following year. (One notable exception is the longest-running theatrical release in film history, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which premiered in 1975 and is still only shown in limited fashion.)
A platform release is a type of limited release strategy, whereby a film opens in fewer theaters (typically 599 or fewer) than a wide release. If the film receives positive word of mouth, then it is gradually expanded to more theaters as the marketing campaign gains momentum. A successful film released in this manner even has the possibility of expanding into a wide release. The advantage of this strategy is that marketing costs are conserved until a film's performance has been established, at which point the distributor may opt to increase advertising and push for a wider release. On the other hand, if it initially flops, then 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. Art house and independent films garnering 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 thus cause the film to appear weaker.
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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.