We think of distribution as simple. You either go to theaters or you don’t.* If you go, you either go wide or you go limited and expand. It’s a flow chart really. And that’s how it seems like it is now and largely was then. But there’s a fascinating blip we used to have: The test release. These were movies that were given a very limited release either as a way of seeing if they could expand to a wider market or most likely a cover for studios to dump the films and run. Today we’re looking at several fascinating examples of films that were given their chance and only got their chance.
We begin with a rather pure example of a film getting test marketed. Anatomy was a solid hit in Germany with an intriguing plot about a society of medical students and professors experimenting on the undesirable while alive. So why did this only get a few screens in locations like Plano, TX and a single screen LA run that wasn’t even a full week? Likely because it was an English dub of a German film in 2000. I feel like Sony was intrigued by the film but realized it simply wouldn’t sell in any way. Undubbed, it was a foreign language slasher film. Dubbed it was a farce. No wonder it slunk to video.
An Ohio run for a Sci-Fi Channel staple. This was as perfectly of the moment as it got. Video games, VR, technology gone awry: The perfect b-movie. So what happened? Remember my first column? Yeah, this was at the moment Trimark was pulling out of b-movies in favor of art house films while their peers were dying. I think this could’ve done better but it was at the worst moment possible for the genre despite nailing the subject. It arrived at its due fate and I think having that SFC staple status make your wikipedia entry is a sign you did fine.
So… Time to study Dimension/Miramax for far from the last time in this column. Dimension’s DTV sequel mania is no secret. They made two Mimic sequels and that was a legendary bomb for them. The Crow went DTV with Salvation but for one week it was tested in Spokane, Washington. I think this was a case where the studio knew there wasn’t really a market after City of Angels tanked but Dunst had heat at the box office circa Bring It On. Fans accused the studio of dumping the film. I say it’s amazing it saw that screen.
Republic Pictures fascinates me. They wanted so damned bad to be Trimark and were pretty good at it. They had the same b-movies to arthouse evolution even. This was given its shot in limited release in the fall of 1993, presumably hoping it would be their Leprechaun. But when I say horror was dead in this age, I mean it. Infested would slink to video as Ticks–its original title–in May 1994 and actually do decent business.
LATE ADDITION: I’m making a rare revision of a column after release to add an ad I was certain didn’t exist. Mark Jones’ Leprechaun followup Rumpelstiltskin is by my criteria the final gasp of its kind even if yes there are a lot of later movies in this column. But this feels like the end of an era. A b-monster movie given a few screens in the midwest. A film that was a staple of the cable networks. A film that was common in video stores with that great poster. A film released bafflingly against Twister. Yeah given that this was on video by Labor Day, there was no future for this in theaters.
Does this count? From Another Star (as it played in my beloved Springfield, MO) is a retitling of Hyper Sapiens: People From Another Star, a Canadian film that played there extensively and in a number of markets in the south. I feel like this is so borderline of an example. But I’m including it because it was definitely not a film the marketers ever figured out. Multiple titles and several runs in places like Oklahoma City and San Antonio (where it had a world premiere), it was tried hard but it ultimately was meant for cable.
We’re breaking out of the b-horror paradigm for our last three films. I don’t question what happened here. Fox signed a deal early on to distribute, before The Shadow and The Phantom crashed and burned despite being good films. They still had to distribute this though. So they flung it in Atlanta to see if there was any hope. There was of course none. Maybe because they tested Prince Valiant, a blindingly white film drawn from Anglo Saxon lore and a long forgotten by the mainstream comic strip in ATLANTA, GEORGIA. This one not getting much of a release is extra humiliating since it was the rare abandoned theatrical release to get a novelization clogging the shelves. I will point out this was the film debut of True Blood’s Stephen Moyer, who played the title role. And would go unknown in America for a decade thanks to this. Also: director Anthony Hickox is the son of Anne V. Coates, the iconic editing queen. Very rarely do you see the son of a legendary woman. Very cool.
So, shall we glimpse what is definitely the only time Disney is coming up here with one of the most fascinatingly bold ideas the company ever had: Give The Black Cauldron another shot. The studio actually gave their biggest bomb one more chance. And no, it did not happen. But I respect the effort. I think this was too tainted in audiences’ minds and never found a following even in animation circles. It’s their last big misstep before the slow build to taking over the world.
Let’s close on a legendary moment. I saved this one for last to dissect what went wrong here. There are a lot of conspiracy theories regarding Idiocracy. Undeniably, it was abandoned by Fox in the smallest release they could give it contractually with no ads beyond a few posters and this newspaper ad. Supposedly it was because Fox was afraid of offending the Fox News base. It’s also been theorized the companies that paid to be in it were furious at their treatment. But I’m going with Mike Judge’s theory: The film died in test screenings. It was unpleasant and yelled at the audiences. It’s especially ugly when you consider Talladega Nights also played at cultural satire but was incredibly genuine and incisive to the point where its targets laughed and acknowledged they were nailed. This film getting killed made it a martyr. Nah, just bad.
Next time: Well I’m going to decide it via poll.
*Yes a lot of films that go to streaming play a few theaters. I’m using primary market here.