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Limited release movies that got the widest expansion

The Weinstein Company

Limited release movies that got the widest expansion

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in “The King’s Speech”

By definition, a movie is given a limited release when it rolls out in fewer than 600 theaters.

The strategy is most commonly applied to festival favorites, independent films, and documentaries—all of which are more likely to draw a crowd in select markets such as Los Angeles and New York. Should the critical response be positive, the ticket sales lucrative, or both the studio proceeds accordingly with a nationwide expansion.

The limited release strategy isn’t solely employed as a means to gauge audience interest, however. Alternatively (or concurrently), the studio might release a film in select theaters during the months of November or December to qualify it for an upcoming awards season— namely the Oscars. In many of these cases, the studio planned from the start to take a film nationwide after the holidays.

While an established tradition, limited releases don’t always work in a movie’s favor. An illustrative example is Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” which likely suffered by not debuting in markets such as … well, Florida. On the flip side, plenty of well-known classics rolled out in limited release and went on to earn big bucks and major recognition.

Stacker analyzed data from The Numbers to rank the 25 movies that were initially given a limited release and eventually gained the widest expansion. To qualify, the film had to open in fewer than 600 theaters and could not have expanded by more than 1,000 theaters in one week. Expansion was determined by the largest number of theaters the film was in, minus the initial number of theaters the film opened in. Movies released prior to 1995 or exclusively in IMAX were not considered.

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Scott Rudin Productions

#25. ‘Lady Bird’ (2017)

Saoirse Ronan and Beanie Feldstein in Lady Bird

– Expansion: 1,553
– Opening theaters: 4
– Highest theater count: 1,557
– Domestic box office: $49 million

Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age dramedy broke a specialty box office record upon its limited release and became one of the best-reviewed films in recent history.

With instant critical and commercial success came a gradual expansion into nationwide theaters, along with five Oscar nominations. It tells the story of an eccentric teen (Saoirse Ronan) during her eventful senior year at a Catholic high school.


#24. ‘Moonlight’ (2016)

Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in “Moonlight”

– Expansion: 1,560
– Opening theaters: 4
– Highest theater count: 1,564
– Domestic box office: $27.9 million

Hailed as “a masterpiece of poetic filmmaking,” by critic E. Oliver Whitney at ScreenCrush, the second feature film from director Barry Jenkins follows a young, gay Black man through a series of life-changing events.

It premiered at major film festivals before opening in four theaters and then expanded over the course of several months. Three Academy Awards would follow, including a Best Picture win that followed a particularly memorable envelope mix-up at the Oscars.

SharpSword Films

#23. ‘Silence’ (2016)

Andrew Garfield in “Silence”

– Expansion: 1,576
– Opening theaters: 4
– Highest theater count: 1,580
– Domestic box office: $7.1 million

Against the backdrop of 17th century Japan, two Portuguese missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) embark on a perilous search for their missing mentor (Liam Neeson). Director Martin Scorsese’s passion project was conceived nearly 30 years before its world premiere in Rome, which was followed by a screening at the Vatican. It rolled into limited theaters in late December and went wide nearly a month later.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

#22. ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ (2006)

Toni Collette, Steve Carell, and Abigail Breslin in “Little Miss Sunshine”

– Expansion: 1,595
– Opening theaters: 7
– Highest theater count: 1,602
– Domestic box office: $59.9 million

This indie classic sparked an intense bidding war at the Sundance Film Festival and cracked the domestic box office top 10 when still in limited release. It maxed out at 1,602 theaters and peaked at #3 at the domestic box office. Brought to life by a talented ensemble cast, it follows the quirky Hoover family on a road trip to watch their youngest enter the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant.

Dimitri Villard Productions

#21. ‘In Love and War’ (1996)

Sandra Bullock and Chris O’Donnell in “In Love and War”

– Expansion: 1,611
– Opening theaters: 1
– Highest theater count: 1,612
– Domestic box office: $14.5 million

Richard Attenborough directed this now nearly forgotten romantic drama, loosely inspired by the real-life experiences of author Ernest Hemingway. It stars Chris O’Donnell as Hemingway himself, who falls in love with a nurse (Sandra Bullock) during World War I. Just over a month after its limited release, the film opened nationwide and took #2 at the domestic box office.

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Paramount Vantage

#20. ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007)

Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”

– Expansion: 1,618
– Opening theaters: 2
– Highest theater count: 1,620
– Domestic box office: $40.2 million

Daniel Day-Lewis delivers an Oscar-winning performance as ruthless oilman Daniel Plainview in what The New Yorker called “an enthralling and powerfully eccentric American epic.” It takes place at the turn of the 20th century and grapples with themes of greed and exploitation. A limited theatrical release and various festival screenings were followed by a nationwide run in early 2008.

Hollywood Pictures

#19. ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ (1995)

Richard Dreyfuss and Jay Thomas in Mr. Holland’s Opus

– Expansion: 1,658
– Opening theaters: 1
– Highest theater count: 1,659
– Domestic box office: $82.6 million

This saccharine drama stars Richard Dreyfuss as the title character, a struggling composer turned high school music teacher. It squeezed in a limited release at the tail end of December, presumably to qualify for that year’s Academy Awards. While it received mixed reviews critically, it was a box office darling and earned Dreyfuss an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

#18. ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ (2017)

Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

– Expansion: 1,722
– Opening theaters: 4
– Highest theater count: 1,726
– Domestic box office: $54.5 million

Director Martin McDonagh took inspiration from real-life events when crafting this dark comedy, which went on to win two Academy Awards for actors Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. It tells the story of a determined mother (McDormand), who publicly chastises the police over their failure to solve her daughter’s murder. Fox Searchlight Pictures took the film nationwide three weeks after its limited release.

Perfect World Pictures

#17. ‘Darkest Hour’ (2017)

Gary Oldman in a scene from “Darkest Hour”

– Expansion: 1,729
– Opening theaters: 4
– Highest theater count: 1,733
– Domestic box office: $56.4 million

This historical drama chronicles Winston Churchill’s fateful decision-making at the height of World War II. Gary Oldman anchors the film with his Oscar-winning performance as the British prime minister. It earned a high per-theater average during its limited release on Nov. 22, 2017, going wide precisely one month later.


#16. ‘The Cider House Rules’ (1999)

Charlize Theron and Paul Rudd in “The Cider House Rules”

– Expansion: 1,730
– Opening theaters: 8
– Highest theater count: 1,738
– Domestic box office: $57.5 million

Here is yet another example of a film being given a limited December release so as to presumably qualify for awards season. The effort paid off with Oscar wins for Best Supporting Actor (Michael Caine) and Best Adapted Screenplay (John Irving, who adapted his own novel of the same name). It tells the story of orphan Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), who returns to the place of his upbringing, an orphanage, during WWII.

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Studio 37

#15. ‘The Artist’ (2011)

Bérénice Bejo and Jean Dujardin in “The Artist”

– Expansion: 1,752
– Opening theaters: 4
– Highest theater count: 1,756
– Domestic box office: $44.7 million

This Oscar-winning French dramedy pays homage to Hollywood’s silent era through story and presentation alike. As the talkie format looms, a waning star (Jean Dujardin) becomes the mentor to a rising talent (Bérénice Bejo). It was re-released nationwide after winning multiple Golden Globes, just over two months out from its initial limited run.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

#14. ‘Sideways’ (2004)

Thomas Haden Church and Paul Giamatti in “Sideways”

– Expansion: 1,783
– Opening theaters: 4
– Highest theater count: 1,787
– Domestic box office: $71.5 million

Alexander Payne’s Oscar-winning dramedy follows a struggling writer (Paul Giamatti) and his friend (Thomas Haden Church) through California wine country. More than a surprise hit, the film made a notable impact on the domestic wine industry. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and went wide over a month later, eventually making just under $110 million at the global box office.

The Weinstein Company

#13. ‘Lion’ (2016)

Dev Patel in a scene from “Lion”

– Expansion: 1,798
– Opening theaters: 4
– Highest theater count: 1,802
– Domestic box office: $51.7 million

The feature debut from Aussie director Garth Davis made its way through the international festival circuit before arriving on domestic screens. It tells the real-life story of Saroo Brierley (played by Dev Patel), an Indian man adopted as a child who searches for his biological parents after 25 years of separation. With over $140 million in worldwide box office receipts, it’s one of the highest-grossing Australian films of all time.

Home Box Office (HBO)

#12. ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ (2002)

Gia Carides, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, and Nia Vardalos in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”

– Expansion: 1,908
– Opening theaters: 108
– Highest theater count: 2,016
– Domestic box office: $241.4 million

Writer and star Nia Vardalos originally performed this indie comedy as a one-woman show based on her family’s hilarious stories. With backing from producing couple Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson came the feature film adaptation. Released in limited theaters in April 2002, it went wide over the summer and became a cultural smash, garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay the following year.

CJ Entertainment

#11. ‘Parasite’ (2019)

Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin, Choi Woo-sik, and Park So-dam in “Parasite”

– Expansion: 1,998
– Opening theaters: 3
– Highest theater count: 2,001
– Domestic box office: $53.4 million

Bong Joon-ho’s pitch-black dramedy layers socioeconomic themes within a tapestry of unexpected plot twists. When a lower-class family ingratiates itself into an upper-class household, several shocking events unfold. It premiered at Cannes and gradually expanded around the world, going on to become the first-ever fully non-English-language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

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#10. ‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007)

Josh Brolin in “No Country for Old Men”

– Expansion: 2,009
– Opening theaters: 28
– Highest theater count: 2,037
– Domestic box office: $74.3 million

This Coen brothers classic offers a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s violent neo-Western novel. Upon his discovery of $2 million in drug money, a Texan man (Josh Brolin) must flee from a deadly psychopath (Javier Bardem). It expanded from 28 theaters to a peak of 2,037 theaters in one month and won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia

#9. ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000)

Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”

– Expansion: 2,011
– Opening theaters: 16
– Highest theater count: 2,027
– Domestic box office: $128.1 million

Director Ang Lee returned to his Chinese roots with this award-winning martial arts action film, where various warriors square off over a powerful sword. It is set during the 19th-century Qing dynasty and features stunning fight choreography from action master Woo-Ping Yuen. Following its limited release was a lucrative four-month theatrical run and four Oscar wins, including for Best Foreign Language Film.

Obama’s America Foundation

#8. ‘2016: Obama’s America’ (2012)

Screengrab from the “2016: Obama’s America” film

– Expansion: 2,016
– Opening theaters: 1
– Highest theater count: 2,017
– Domestic box office: $33.3 million

Controversial conservative pundit and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza paints a bleak and hypothetical portrait of America in this political documentary. It chronicles President Obama’s upbringing and imagines a disastrous outcome upon his reelection. Expanding from a single theater in Houston, it became the year’s highest-grossing documentary.

Focus Features

#7. ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Brokeback Mountain”

– Expansion: 2,084
– Opening theaters: 5
– Highest theater count: 2,089
– Domestic box office: $83 million

Two shepherds (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal), both married to women, explore a complex sexual and romantic relationship with each other in the 1960s in this acclaimed Western drama. It screened at several major festivals before opening in a limited number of theaters in early December, then gradually went wide. Three Academy Awards followed, including Best Director for Ang Lee.

USA Films

#6. ‘Gosford Park’ (2001)

Maggie Smith and Kelly Macdonald in “Gosford Park”

– Expansion: 2,308
– Opening theaters: 9
– Highest theater count: 2,317
– Domestic box office: $41.3 million

From director Robert Altman comes this ensemble dramedy with themes of class status and a murder mystery at its center. The story takes place at a lavish party in the 1930s and turns entitled guests and various servants into suspects. Like so many Oscar hopefuls (the film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay), this one rolled into limited theaters in December and went wide a month later.

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Fox Searchlight Pictures

#5. ‘Black Swan’ (2010)

Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”

– Expansion: 2,389
– Opening theaters: 18
– Highest theater count: 2,407
– Domestic box office: $107 million

A shy but ambitious ballerina (Natalie Portman) loses her grip on reality in this harrowing psychological thriller. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival to rapturous applause and later earned a high per-theater average during limited release. With subsequent expansions both domestically and abroad, it racked up a worldwide box office haul of over $329 million, and Portman picked up an Oscar for her performance.

Black Bear Pictures

#4. ‘The Imitation Game’ (2014)

Charles Dance, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game”

– Expansion: 2,398
– Opening theaters: 4
– Highest theater count: 2,402
– Domestic box office: $91.1 million

Math genius Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) tackles the German Enigma code and helps pave the way for modern computing in this WWII drama. It was privately screened for tech honchos such as Mark Zuckerberg before arriving in limited theaters, then going wide on Christmas Day. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, it won for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

#3. ‘Juno’ (2007)

Elliot Page in a scene from “Juno”

– Expansion: 2,527
– Opening theaters: 7
– Highest theater count: 2,534
– Domestic box office: $143.5 million

This coming-of-age dramedy was such a festival darling that its limited release was pushed up by 10 days from its original date. By the time it went wide on Christmas Day, the film had nearly recouped its entire $6.5 million budget and won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Elliot Page plays the title character, who grapples with an unexpected pregnancy while still in high school.

The Weinstein Company

#2. ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010)

Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush in “The King’s Speech”

– Expansion: 2,580
– Opening theaters: 4
– Highest theater count: 2,584
– Domestic box office: $138.8 million

King George VI (Colin Firth) must overcome a speech impediment before leading the British Empire in this historical drama. Its limited opening earned the highest per-screen average of 2010. That gave way to a similarly lucrative nationwide rollout, along with four Academy Awards including Best Picture.

Celador Films

#1. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008)

Dev Patel and Freida Pinto in “Slumdog Millionaire”

– Expansion: 2,933
– Opening theaters: 10
– Highest theater count: 2,943
– Domestic box office: $141.3 million

Like its nimble protagonist, this sweeping drama overcame various odds on its way to sleeper success—and a whopping eight Oscar wins including Best Picture. It was headed straight to the DVD market when Fox Searchlight and Warner Bros. formed a deal for domestic theatrical distribution. The story follows Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), who draws from life experience while competing on India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”

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