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Limited theatrical release is a film distribution strategy of releasing a new film in a few theaters across a country, typically art house theaters in major metropolitan markets. Since 1994, a limited theatrical release in the United States and Canada has been defined by Nielsen EDI as a film released in fewer than 600 theaters.
The purpose is often used to gauge the appeal of specialty films, like documentaries, independent films and art films. A common practice by film studios is to give highly anticipated and critically acclaimed films a limited release on or before December 31 in Los Angeles County, California, to qualify for Academy Award nominations (as by its rules). Highly anticipated documentaries also receive limited releases at the same time in New York City, as the rules for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature mandate releases in both locations. The films are almost always released to a wider audience in January or February of the following year.
One notable exception is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which premiered in 1975 and is still shown only in limited fashion; it is the longest-running theatrical release in film history.