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The big year-end movies: Are they taking too long to come to a theater near you?

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I have a question for all you avid year-end moviegoers: Do you feel frustrated and teased? Do you keep reading about movies that you’re dying to see…but can’t see? For weeks? Or maybe even months? Do you wonder why some of these films, even if they have very big stars in them, have to take so long before they come to a theater near you?

I’m starting to wonder myself. My big double-take moment occurred near the end of the Thanksgiving weekend, when I looked up the box-office report and discovered that The Princess and the Frog, the acclaimed and eagerly awaited new Disney cartoon, had opened in just two theaters. I’d assumed, wrongly, that it had already gone wide. Naturally, on those two screens, it generated a per-screen average of about a hundred million zillion dollars. But why the teensy-boutique, specialty-movie release for a Disney cartoon in the grand princess-populist tradition of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid? Is it really so exotic that the movie was hand-drawn? Obviously, the studio intends to maximize its profits, but wasn’t it, in fact, blowing the opportunity to rule the kiddie audience over Thanksgiving? Were the Disney folks really that scared of New Moon?

I understand, I really do, why movies are given “platform” releases, especially at awards time. It’s all an attempt to build the buzz slowly, and to draw that buzz out of the essential — and, let’s be honest, completely free — publicity of Oscar chatter. The studios are probably right to treat certain movies as delicate, precious blossoms that deserve special care and tending. Yet I come back to my original question: How frustrating is this for you, the viewer, who doesn’t happen to live in New York or Los Angeles or seven other selected cities, where all these movies first open in limited release? Most of you will have to display the patience of a Buddhist monk as you wait to see The Road or Bad Lieutenant or The Messenger or The Young Victoria. Many of you are still waiting to see Precious, An Education, or the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. Even Up in the Air, the great new George Clooney movie that comes out this week, isn’t really coming out until Christmas. That’s when it will be in a theater near you.

Platform releasing is nothing new, of course (in the old studio-system days, even the most popular pictures took longer to roll out across the country), but my gut instinct tells me that it’s now happening more often, not less. The reason for that, I think, is that there’s a new, unspoken manifesto in Hollywood, and it is this: Anything that isn’t a popcorn movie is an art film. If it’s not Harry Potter or Star Trek or The Hangover or New Moon — that is, if it’s not aimed squarely at kids and teenagers but, rather, at adults — then it makes the executives nervous. It’s rarefied haute cuisine rather than candy. And so just about every year-end release is deemed to require that special care and tending. Even if it is in fact a children’s film that’s also trying to woo adults, like Fantastic Mr. Fox. Or The Princess and the Frog.

So which movies have you been waiting overtime to see? And are you happy with the current system, in which prestige films creep out to theaters so very slowly? Or do you wish that the studios, if they really do believe in the movies that they’re distributing, would just throw them out there a little more confidently and let the chips (and the box office returns) fall where they may?

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