Amazon’s Release Strategy for ‘Suspiria’ Is the Right Thing to Do

More than any other movie this year, I’ve been looking forward to Suspiria (2018).  Yes, Black Panther (2018) was amazing.  So was Avengers: Infinity War (2018).  But Sorry to Bother You (2018) came out of nowhere, Hereditary (2018) too.  If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) and Roma (2018) were always going to be good based purely on who made them, but only recently roused more attention from me than “Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight (2016)” or “Alfonso Cuarón’s first movie since Gravity (2013).”

Suspiria, though?  Now that was a movie I could get into!  It was the best of all possible worlds: a remake of a good (but by no means perfect) horror movie from a visionary (but by no means unimpeachable) auteur director.  It was the immediate follow-up to Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017) from the prior year: a noteworthy work of cinema that promised even better things to come from its craftsmen.  And, by all accounts, it was a no-holds-barred cacophony of bombastic ideas that could barely be contained in its two and one-half hour runtime.

It was, in short, this year’s answer to Mother! (2017): Darren Aronofsky’s love-it-or-hate it masterpiece and the very best movie released last year.  Everything about Suspria screamed out to me in the exact same way that Aronofsky’s madcap fever dream did: right down to its dark purple-red poster in which a red-headed woman offers her still-beating heart to the viewer through the yonic wound in her chest (unnervingly reminiscent of Jennifer Lawrence’s character doing virtually the same thing in the water-colored poster for Mother!).

As the film slow-rolled its way through the fall festival scene, it drew equally impassioned defenses and denunciations from those that saw it: one or the other, love it or hate it, and never did the twain meet.  And as it creeped towards it commercial release date, I knew — in the pit of my being — that I had to see this movie.  It was the kind of fully crazed creation that simply shouldn’t exist.  The entire Hollywood system was pretty much put into place in order to stop this exact kind of moving from being made in the first place: anti-commercial, anti-narrative, anti-audience features that more-or-less exist for the sole purpose of off-putting exactly as many moviegoers as it possibly can.

And so Suspiria entered the world: first with a limited release, but with the promise of an expanded release in the weeks to come.  Then every night, before I went to bed, I refreshed the coming week’s offerings at my local theaters, all to no avail.  Frustrated and impatient, this last week I expanded far-and-away beyond what I had been doing and discovered the infuriating truth: Suspiria was never going to show in a theater near me.

At the start, Suspiria got its limited release: a miserly two theaters.  The week after that, it did, in fact, expand into a wide release.  But rather than the 2,300 screen that Mother! showed on starting on day one, Suspiria capped out at a measly 311.

Not 2,300.  Not 1,500.  Not ever 1,000.  311.  In a maddening callback to Searching’s (2018) so-called “wide release,” no theater within 100 miles of me was playing the movie.  It’d take an 8 hour round trip to see a 2 and one half hour movie.

Now, as much as I hate the reality of this turn of events, I understand it: applaud it, even.  Despite the brand-recognition that the 1977 original provides it, this movie was never going to be a commercial success.  Based on a forty-year-old Italian movie in a niche genre, foreboding a degree of off-putting gore and artistic sensibilities that simply don’t play to the sensibilities of mainstream moviegoers, a true wide release was simply not going to fly here.  As much as I loved Mother!, putting that movie into nearly as many theaters as A Star Is Born (2018) was a mistake: a massively expansive undertaking that the movie couldn’t hope to make up for in ticket sales.

Every film can be successful, but in its own way.  Distributors need to understand what — and particular how big — the audience for any given movie is.  Suspiria, evidently, is worth about 311 screens.  Judging from its eventual box office gross, so was Mother!.  Whatever else I might think of it, Amazon did the right thing by scaling back their commercial expectations for this movie and letting its domineering word-of-mouth build an even bigger audience for it when it eventually his their streaming platform and home video.

If this correct-minded strategy results in more movies like this being made — movies that are budgeted and distributed according to the market’s demand for them — than I’m all for it.  After all, I loved Mother! and will doubtless love Suspiria about as much.  I want movies to be successful, but it needs to be on their own terms.  And if their release is necessarily small, at least we got to see it in the first place.

Logan (2017) would never have existed with an Avengers (2012)-sized budget, same as Suspiria would never have existed with an Avengers-sized marketing plan.  Scale projects down to what you can make them for.  Be realistic with what they can earn back.  And keep making more of them.

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