What does it mean when a film is a "limited release," anyway? Used to be, this was a straightforward thing. Think about a movie like 1977's Star Wars. If it were released now, it'd be a summer studio tentpole, meaning that 20th Century Fox would open the film near a late spring or early summer holiday weekend and would saturate North America with the movie, getting the film on maybe 9,000 screens at 4,000 multiplexes.
But on May 25, 1977, Star Wars opened on only 43 screens. Its wide opening weekend, on July 15, saw the film expand to only 757 screens, barely the minimum to be considered wide today. During that initial release, Star Wars never played at more than 1,750 theaters. But it didn't leave theaters for nearly a year; it wasn't gone six weeks later. That's the way things worked back then: a movie opened small, let word of mouth from critics and early audiences spread -- and remember, it took a lot longer for word of mouth to spread before blogs, Facebook, and Twitter -- and gradually expanded as audiences started to hear about a film they'd probably want to see.
Things are different today, when Hollywood is all about opening weekend, because two weeks out the next potential blockbuster is coming down the pike to draw attention away. Once in a while -- especially during awards seasons, which we're heading into again now -- you'll see a studio open what they hope will be their prestige film in New York, Los Angeles, and maybe Toronto, and then slowly expanding it. It's a calculated gambit to try to harness how word of mouth worked 40 years ago, to get critics and moviegoers in media centers talking about a film. There's no reason why the studios must hold those films back (as there was in olden times, when massive marketing budgets didn't exist, and there was no point in manufacturing 5,000 very expensive prints of a film to spread around the continent in a single week; no one in Iowa would have known anything about, say, Taxi Driver when the New York critics were first talking about it).
The true limited releases today come out of a range of marketing gambits. There's the foreign film, which likely wouldn't find much of an audience outside major cities anyway. There's the homegrown indie, which is funky and weird and made on the cheap and features neither the stars nor the FX that mainstream audiences want out of their $12 multiplex admission price. There's the crappy horror movies or grossout comedies that, a decade or two ago, would have gone straight to video: now, these movies might get a one-week showing in New York and Los Angeles in the hopes of getting a couple of reviews. And then there are the movies that, in 1970s, would have been big deals: grownup dramas or comedies, often starring well-known actors, that simply cannot compete with the FX spectaculars these days.
Those last ones are the films that seem to make the most of limited releases these days... especially when they combine theatrical showings in arthouses in big cities with on-demand options available to almost anyone who has cable TV or access to the Internet. These are the movies that will draw audiences ... but audiences that don't want to cope with the horrors and hassles of today's multiplexes, overrun with kids, texters, and inedible, overpriced snacks. A bigscreen plasma, a bottle of wine, and first-run on-demand movie starring Kevin Kline or Jon Hamm that you'd otherwise have to travel to New York or Los Angeles to see? Sounds like the way to enjoy a movie these days ...