Limited release movies that got the widest expansion

Movies

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in “The King’s Speech

By definition, a movie is given a limited release when it rolls out in fewer than 600 theaters.

The strategy is most commonly applied to festival favorites, independent films, and documentaries—all of which are more likely to draw a crowd in select markets such as Los Angeles and New York. Should the critical response be positive, the ticket sales lucrative, or both the studio proceeds accordingly with a nationwide expansion.

The limited release strategy isn’t solely employed as a means to gauge audience interest, however. Alternatively (or concurrently), the studio might release a film in select theaters during the months of November or December to qualify it for an upcoming awards season— namely the Oscars. In many of these cases, the studio planned from the start to take a film nationwide after the holidays.
While an established tradition, limited releases don’t always work in a movie’s favor. An illustrative example is Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” which likely suffered by not debuting in markets such as … well, Florida. On the flip side, plenty of well-known classics rolled out in limited release and went on to earn big bucks and major recognition.

Stacker analyzed data from The Numbers to rank the 25 movies that were initially given a limited release and eventually gained the widest expansion. To qualify, the film had to open in fewer than 600 theaters and could not have expanded by more than 1,000 theaters in one week. Expansion was determined by the largest number of theaters the film was in, minus the initial number of theaters the film opened in. Movies released prior to 1995 or exclusively in IMAX were not considered.
Scott Rudin Productions

3. ‘Lady Bird’ (2017)

Saoirse Ronan and Beanie Feldstein in Lady Bird

– Expansion: 1,553
– Opening theaters: 4
– Highest theater count: 1,557
– Domestic box office: $49 million

Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age dramedy broke a specialty box office record upon its limited release and became one of the best-reviewed films in recent history.

With instant critical and commercial success came a gradual expansion into nationwide theaters, along with five Oscar nominations. It tells the story of an eccentric teen (Saoirse Ronan) during her eventful senior year at a Catholic high school.

2. ‘Moonlight’ (2016)

Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in “Moonlight”

– Expansion: 1,560
– Opening theaters: 4
– Highest theater count: 1,564
– Domestic box office: $27.9 million

Hailed as “a masterpiece of poetic filmmaking,” by critic E. Oliver Whitney at ScreenCrush, the second feature film from director Barry Jenkins follows a young, gay Black man through a series of life-changing events.

It premiered at major film festivals before opening in four theaters and then expanded over the course of several months. Three Academy Awards would follow, including a Best Picture win that followed a particularly memorable envelope mix-up at the Oscars.

1. ‘Silence’ (2016)

Andrew Garfield in “Silence”

– Expansion: 1,576
– Opening theaters: 4
– Highest theater count: 1,580
– Domestic box office: $7.1 million

Against the backdrop of 17th century Japan, two Portuguese missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) embark on a perilous search for their missing mentor (Liam Neeson). Director Martin Scorsese’s passion project was conceived nearly 30 years before its world premiere in Rome, which was followed by a screening at the Vatican. It rolled into limited theaters in late December and went wide nearly a month later.