Every time the Academy Awards come around, it always feels like there are one or two "case study" films that break out not just because of their mastery, but because the industry is changing with them.

This year those films are CODA and Drive my Car. We covered how CODA is going to beef up streamers' production scale. But one thing we have not talked about is how Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour arthouse adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story was able to break out this year.

The movie grossed $1 million in 150 theaters. That's almost unheard of in terms of foreign film distribution. So how did this happen? 

What made a small, indie Japanese movie break out and have a long enough life to get noticed and get into contention for the Academy Awards' Best Picture?  

The movie was released by Janus Films and a new company called Sideshow, run by IFC Films executive Jonathan Sehring.

Sehring told Indiewire:

“Sideshow came about between longtime collaborators who wanted to ensure that select films/new works in contemporary cinema that we loved were given the attention of a specialized theatrical release and did not risk getting lost. The idea was to partner with our longtime friends at Janus Films and Criterion and give Drive My Car the positioning of a release from the company that had released Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini as well as many contemporary works by filmmakers like Paolo Sorrentino and Aki Kaurismaki. Drive My Car ticked all the boxes as the exact type of film we wanted to release and felt aligned with the vision.”

To do this, they did something revolutionary. They slowly rolled it out.

Much like the methodical pace of the movie, they worked to focus their efforts on just this one title. Everyone chipped in to make sure it had big debuts and that it was on screens in huge cities.

While many would have sold the title to a streamer or only kept it in theaters for a few weeks, this rolling out was an event. People were clamoring for the movie to open in their towns, and critics were following it, seeing and reviewing it as it came to them. This all built a tangible buzz. This was a curated distribution plan that let an entire company market one title at a time. 

So where does this leave us? The big takeaway here is the need for actual innovation in the distro market that leans into building a movie’s lifespan. Rolling out movies might do well in creating buzz, and keeping them off streaming might feel like limiting access, but it drives movie fans to the theaters and ups the demand to show the movie to new places. It also can get Academy voters excited, especially by opening the doors in New York and Los Angeles. 

These are small lessons, but they all revolve around keeping a movie alive and in the minds of an audience. And they show that a company that's focused on one move can do just that. 

Let us know what you think in the comments.