Public Q&As Boosting Specialty Box Office Grosses

Indie distributors increasingly are leveraging filmmaker appearances to juice opening weekend averages and spark word of mouth.

Fox Searchlight scored a coup when it secured the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles for the limited release opening of Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit.

But the Adolf Hitler satire was bumped from the Dome for part of its Oct. 18-20 debut weekend. Why? Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe and director Robert Eggers showed up for a Q&A promoting A24's rival specialty film, The Lighthouse.

Spurred in part by small distributors looking to boost their crucial per-theater location averages on opening weekends, stars and directors increasingly are being enlisted for public Q&As tied to their films' launch.

While these in-theater appearances are not new, in the past they were largely considered part of a film's awards campaign, designed to woo guild and Academy voters in L.A. and New York. Now they are seen by distributors with limited marketing resources as a way to connect with consumers and gin up revenue.

"You have to do it, no matter how big of a talent you are,” says Neon chief Tom Quinn, who is releasing Parasite. He's a pioneer of the practice and has been staging Q&As for more than a decade in various jobs.

“It has so much added value, and you can’t buy the amount of social media that comes with it. Talent shouldn’t be reserved for the industry; whether guild or Academy screenings, CinemaCon or ComicCon,” Quinn says.

Over the Oct. 11-13 weekend, Parasite opened to the best location average ($128,072) since La La Land in 2016 thanks in part to director Bong Joon-ho appearances at the ArcLight Hollywood.

And, in fact, as Jojo Rabbit was demoted from the Dome the following weekend, Waititi was mingling with the masses at the Regal Union Square in NYC, another prime destination for cinephiles. The Landmark in West L.A. is another Q&A haven.

"These shows sell out immediately," says Ted Mundorff, the outgoing president of Landmark Theatres, the country's largest independent cinema chain. "It's as powerful a marketing tool as it gets, even rivaling trailers."

A Q&A creates good optics and a narrative, particularly when a film such as Jojo Rabbit has drawn mixed reviews but has a charistmatic filmmaker like Waititi. The film successfully expanded into 55 theaters over the Oct. 25-27 weekend, finishing Sunday with a tidy 10-day total of $1.5 million.

Nor are A24’s The Lighthouse and the foreign-language Parasite easy sells (both continue their Q&A roadshows). The Lighthouse moved into 586 locations in its sophomore outing, grossing $3 million for an eighth place finish and a 10-day total of $3.6 million through Oct. 27. Parasite, now playing in 33 sites, finished its third weekend with a cume of $4.1 million.

"I wish we could do more Q&As," says Searchlight distribution chief Frank Rodriguez. "It helps to light a fire, even though a movie would probably sell out anyway. When the talent will do it, like Taika, it’s fabulous. Guillermo [del Toro] did a few for us for The Shape of Water at the Arclight a couple of years ago. It can be hard to open a movie without them.”

Even the major studios are starting to notice the practice. On Oct. 29, Sony announced that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt will participate in a live Q&A at Tarantino's The New Beverly on Saturday that will be live-streamed in select theaters across the country.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.