If you've wanted to catch Sean Penn in his critically acclaimed role as Harvey Milk, or see Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road or most any other Oscar-contending movie, there's a reason they're not currently playing at theaters everywhere near you.
The fact that they are booked mostly into one theater — the AMC Woodlands Square 20 in Oldsmar — is not a political conspiracy, and it isn't an insult to our Tampa Bay movie market, as some readers and a recent letter to the editor have suggested.
This is simply the way Hollywood does things during the awards season, and with good reason. Making a great movie is only the first step toward an acceptance speech. Keeping it relevant through two months of competitive studio campaigning is like a four-corner stall in basketball: Slowing down the game increases the chance to win.
The Tampa Bay market isn't ranked as high as New York and Los Angeles, where Oscar contenders must play for a week before Dec. 31. But we are high enough that we don't get ignored in the films' rollout.
The movie game is usually a run-and-gun affair when only box office receipts are on the line: Book a movie into as many theaters as possible, then make money while market interest lasts. Bride Wars played on 3,226 screens nationwide last weekend. Bedtime Stories opened two weeks ago on nearly 3,700 screens. Give them a couple of weeks and those numbers will be halved.
With new movies entering the competition each week, ticket sales can dwindle fast, taking theater counts with them. Got to have room for the new stuff that will fill seats, rather than something playing to half-filled (or less) auditoriums. That's a lot of product turnover, and a lot of "don't-miss" movies quickly forgotten.
Which is exactly what studios don't want to happen to their showpiece releases contending for major prizes.
Book Milk or Frost/Nixon in 3,000 theaters and their buzz would be silenced in one or two weeks. Moviegoers would be happy to see the Golden Globe (and likely Oscar nominees) as soon as they heard of them through TV interviews, ads and Web buzz. Studios would worry about the short attention spans of awards voters, or their movies being considered as flops and losing votes that way.
The alternative is obvious: Book Milk and Frost/Nixon in the best moviegoing markets to promote awareness, but only in one or two theaters until the Oscars and Golden Globes races come into focus. Then expand into more theaters, especially if your movie earns major nominations or awards that can be touted in advertisements, resulting in more ticket sales.
This leaves Tampa Bay out of those first few theaters because we are generally ranked 13th as a market, right in the same league as Phoenix, Seattle, Detroit or Minneapolis. Still, we are recently ahead of Miami, which is generally ranked 17th. The rankings matter more for so-called art house films because the distributors take the area's tastes and demographics into account in deciding whether to release it here. So we get Bride Wars everywhere, for example, but not a movie like Waltz with Bashir, which won the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film Sunday night.
If either Milk or Frost/Nixon had swept the Golden Globes like Slumdog Millionaire did Sunday night, they'd be expanding to more screens this week, just to cash in.
There's also a geographic disconnect: When a booker in L.A. plans a limited Tampa Bay release, Tampa is the city they think about. At least now they're considering Oldsmar's Woodlands Square 20 — where Milk and Frost/Nixon have recently had exclusive engagements — as the closest theater to central Tampa Bay, and not Brandon's Regency 24 as in past years.
If Milk and Frost/Nixon garner the Oscar love that's expected when nominations are announced Jan. 22, you'll see those movies in more local theaters soon thereafter.
Steve Persall wrote this post originally on his "Reeling in the Years" blog. Go to blogs.tampabay.com/movies for more fresh content and leave a comment. He can also be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.