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Small movie theaters hold all the Oscars power.EXPAND
Small movie theaters hold all the Oscars power.
George Konig / Keystone Features / Getty Images

Golden Ticket Holders: How North Texas Indie Movie Fans Shape the Awards Race

Academy Award-nominated director Terrence Malick is one of Texas' most acclaimed filmmakers, and ever since his directorial debut Badlands was released in 1973, Malick’s signature films have been steadily met with critical acclaim. His latest film is A Hidden Life, a three-hour epic that follows the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector to the Nazis during World War II.

But audiences waiting to see Malick's latest film wouldn’t be able to go, even if they're in the vicinity of large theaters. Films like A Hidden Life are prominent on the festival circuit and are celebrated with glossy premieres in places like Cannes, Toronto and London — yet only receive a small release in North Texas at the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas and the Angelika Film Center in Plano.

Independent films tend to follow similar paths of distribution; following a debut at a festival earlier in the year, an indie film generally has a limited debut in New York and Los Angeles before it expands to other major markets, including Chicago, Boston and Dallas. Audiences in markets like North Texas end up playing a major role in a film’s success, as the initial box office gross in theaters like the Magnolia and the two Angelika locations can end up determining the future distribution plan.

The per screen average gross that a film makes in its first few weeks is key in determining how it's marketed as it expands. A Hidden Life, for instance, opened Dec. 13 in five markets with a per screen average of $10,400 and went on to be largely unrecognized by major awards bodies, whereas A24’s Uncut Gems opened the same weekend to a per screen average of $105,100 and has gone on to be one of the major awards contenders of the season.

Expansion plans are often contingent on the award-earning expectation that a studio has for a given film, as building buzz is essential in drawing awards voters. After purchasing the North American distribution rights to Parasite at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Neon launched an ambitious campaign that began with a limited rollout in LA and New York, and later Dallas. Parasite’s $125,421 opening weekend per screen average was the best since 2016’s La La Land, and the demand to see the film helped to solidify its “must see” status throughout the season.

While some of this fall’s buzziest titles had predetermined established distribution plans, awards strategists use the gradual rollout strategy as a means to keep films in the awards conversation as critic groups determine their picks for the year’s best films. Fox Searchlight’s Jojo Rabbit began its campaign with a debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and appeared at both Angelika theaters in mid-October prior to its nationwide rollout on Nov. 8. There was never any doubt that Jojo Rabbit, with all the force of Disney’s marketing team behind it, would screen in most theater chains across the country, but its initial debut in cities like Dallas and Plano served an important purpose in extending the conversation around the film.

The opposite can also occur as a film’s awards success can help its box office performance. French drama Les Miserables screened in New York and Los Angeles in late December in order to meet awards deadlines, but its debut in Dallas was set for Jan. 15, just four days after it received an Academy Award nomination for Best International Feature Film. Les Miserables was considered to be one of the front-runners in the category, and the nomination further boosted the film’s visibility as it made its way to Dallas and other select theaters.

Independent theaters in the Dallas area are also integral in allowing Netflix films to qualify for awards. Current legislation within the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences requires a film to have a limited theatrical run in theaters before their streaming debut in order to qualify for consideration. Major theater chains like Cinemark, AMC, Alamo Drafthouse and even the Angelika don’t screen Netflix films, so theaters like the Magnolia have become one of the few locations in the country where audiences can see films like The Irishman, Marriage Story and The Two Popes on a big screen in a non-festival setting.

While much of the awards buzz that these Netflix films receive is based on reviews and the pedigree of the talent involved, their run in independent theaters serve an important role in legitimizing the work of streamers in the eyes of industry skeptics. Steven Spielberg told the Academy that he wanted “the theatrical experience to remain relevant in our culture” and that Netflix films “deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar.”

His statement prompted a large debate among the industry, considering that the streaming platform has employed such legendary filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuaron and the Coen Brothers, who have said they weren’t able to fund their films otherwise. For these two colliding viewpoints, independent theaters represent a compromise that allows filmmakers to use Netflix’s substantial resources while still giving moviegoers the chance to see the film theatrically.

Both awards bodies and independent theaters share a goal of helping these films reach an audience. When they catch a movie, North Texas audiences are doing more than supporting the film in question and the theater's business —  their ticket purchases are changing the future of the entire industry.

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