When the acclaimed Canadian-Irish drama Room snagged four Academy Award nominations last week, including one for best picture, Hollywood analysts began feverishly speculating on the box-office bonanza that might follow. One report at Deadline.com suggested the film could triple its $5.2-million (U.S.) prenomination take at North American theatres, for a total of about $15-million.
Fuelled by that sort of coverage, and its fistful of nominations, Room's U.S. and Canadian distributors are aggressively rolling out the film on Friday for its first wide release since opening in the middle of October. Only two weeks ago, Room was in 88 theatres. This weekend, brandishing its Oscar kisses in a hefty cable-TV, print and social-media advertising buy, it will be in 868 locations: from a 19-screen multiplex in Langley, B.C., to Calgary's 17-screen Scotiabank Chinook, Cineplex Saint John and even Galaxy Cinemas in Peterborough, Ont.
"We're in theatres close to consumers who may have been interested in the movie but never had a chance to see it yet," said Adrian Love, the executive vice-president of marketing at Room's Canadian distributor, Elevation Pictures, in an interview. He noted the company had been getting requests through the film's Facebook page for it to play in Prince Edward Island; it will finally do so this weekend.
"A lot rides on this weekend, because we need to show our exhibition partners that we should get onto even more screens, or hold the screens we have," Love said.
Screen counts are a primary driver of box-office performance, but if Room is going to transform from a delicate art-house flower to populist hit, it will need to overcome a major hurdle it hit after its red-carpet premiere at TIFF last fall. And if it finally does break out, the industry will see the success to be as much an achievement of marketing as of cinema.
The film's troubles took Elevation by surprise. After all, Room had won the People's Choice Award at TIFF, an honour that has prefigured box-office success for such similar underdog films as Slumdog Millionaire, The Imitation Game, 12 Years a Slave and The King's Speech. But when distribution executives began conducting test screenings, they noticed a vexing anomaly.
"We'd get these well-above-average scores [from test audiences]. We were in the 90s, and the norm is in the 70s," said Love, during a TIFF-sponsored panel discussion last week with the film's Canadian producer, David Gross. "But then we'd run into this question called 'Definite Recommend,' which is, would you tell all your friends to go see the movie?" Those numbers were sharply lower, "especially our demo who liked the movie the best, which is women 25-plus. They were the ones that would recommend it the least." Many critics echoed the public response: Rex Reed called the film "too grim and heartbreaking for some viewers" even as he said it was "so powerful and unforgettable that it must be seen."
Room's premise – about a woman held captive in a small, soundproof garden shed for seven years who hatches a plot to escape using the five-year-old son born to her in captivity – was apparently too harrowing for audiences to endorse wholeheartedly, even if they loved the film. (Although it was based on a bestselling novel, readers have a different relationship to books than audiences do to films; they can put the book down if it becomes too intense.)
"Even synopses became a problem," Love said. When people would talk about the film to their friends, "the question is always: 'What is that movie about?' And as soon as you say, 'Oh, it's a woman who's in captivity who's had a child' – like, everything else you say seems to not matter. They focus on that."
So Elevation created marketing materials with their U.S. distribution partner, A24 Films, that, to the chagrin of many, revealed a major plot point (spoiler alert: Roughly halfway through the film, the mother and son escape) and tried to reassure potential audiences that they would leave the theatre feeling uplifted.
"We tried to figure out, how do you shape the conversation?" Love said. "And how do you start to communicate that this is actually about a mother's love, and that it's about the child's love for his mother as much as it's about what's happened to them?"
The three TV spots airing this weekend contain barely any mention of the characters' captivity. Instead, the ads are peppered with shots of the outdoors, family hugs, smiles and a child on a swing, all of which are overlaid with approving quotes such as Jimmy Fallon's "I want everyone to see Brie Larson in Room" and US Weekly's "It inspires and uplifts the soul."
Love admitted that some people didn't like the turn in the film's marketing. "They were saying that we were giving away a huge plot point," he said during the panel. "But we felt it was the only way we could convince people that you're not gonna get trapped.
"We didn't want it to be seen as a thriller. We wanted to show that this was an emotional movie."
Quoting a popular marketing aphorism, Gross added, "If they cry, they buy."