‘Downton Abbey’ Was a Hit, So Why Isn’t ‘El Camino’ In Theaters Nationwide, Too?

There’s a reason why Netflix is treating its “Breaking Bad” movie like a “television event,” not a theatrical one

For hardcore “Downton Abbey” fans, a movie continuing the soapy lives of the residents and servants of Downton was an event not to be missed. The film’s $31 million opening — a record for Focus Features — is notable given the other film adaptation of a hit TV series coming this week but getting only a very limited theatrical release.

That film is “El Camino,” Netflix’s continuation of “Breaking Bad” that shows what happened to Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) after the AMC drama’s series finale, which ended with Walter White’s death and Pinkman escaping captivity. The plans to make such a film had been rumored for months, if not years, and the announcement of the film’s October 11 release date sent fans into a frenzy. In the first 24 hours since first airing during the commercials of the Emmys, the new teaser was watched over 2 million times on Netflix’s YouTube channel.

So if “Downton Abbey” could earn a $31 million opening weekend, one can only imagine how big an opening weekend “El Camino” could have scored if it was released for a full theatrical run. So why is it going to streaming, and why isn’t it getting the full, cultural event-level marketing that “Downton Abbey” received over the summer? Why has Netflix dubbed it a “Television Event” rather than a theatrical one?

A major reason why can be found in the differing visions that the two shows’ creators had for their film follow-ups. Lisa Bunnell, domestic distribution president of Focus Features, told TheWrap that such a theatrical experience was important to “Downton Abbey” writer and show creator Julian Fellowes when making the film. While she did not mention “El Camino,” she said that she believed that marketing the film as a motion picture event to “Downton” devotees is the main reason why Focus is now seeing better numbers than any other film in their history.

“Some of our movie theater partners like Arclight and Alamo Drafthouse really understood this and did a great job making special dress-up event screenings to make it more exciting for fans,” Bunnell said. “For the many fans of ‘Downton Abbey’ we knew that this would be one of the biggest films of the year for them, so we really sold the novelty of sharing in that passion with fellow fans in a movie theater together.”

For the hardest of hardcore “Breaking Bad” fans, Netflix is making the same experience available for “El Camino.” A limited number of screenings will be held at select movie theaters this weekend alongside its streaming release. But it’s still a far cry from the 3,000+ screen wide release that “Downton Abbey” got.

And the differences aren’t just in the release. They’re in the marketing too. The trailers for “Downton” were filled with fan service to show that everything viewers loved about the series is coming back, from the sumptuous shots of ballrooms and bedrooms to Maggie Smith’s pithy one-liners. And in a Marvel-esque tease to get fans excited, the trailers show the beloved butler Carson coming out of retirement to help prepare for the King’s visit.

“El Camino,” meanwhile, has kept everything close to the chest. Jesse himself didn’t appear in any promo material until the full trailer was released just two weeks ago, and even that trailer had no dialogue and only the minimum amount of plot teasing.

Like Julian Fellowes with “Downton,” the marketing and release strategy for “El Camino” has been fueled by creator Vince Gilligan and his desire for intense secrecy surrounding the film. Individuals with knowledge of the production told TheWrap that Gilligan, who is making his directorial debut with “El Camino,” and the film’s producers wanted the film under heavy lock and key, in order to protect any spoilers from getting out. Filming was done in total secrecy in New Mexico, under the fake title “Greenbriar.”

Gilligan and “Breaking Bad” are also paying back a debt of gratitude by putting “El Camino” on Netflix, rather than a big theatrical run — which Netflix has been famously adverse to —  or even on the show’s original TV home of AMC (though it will air the film sometime next year).

Gilligan himself credited Netflix for lifting “Breaking Bad” from a critically-adored “prestige” series with modest viewership to a full-blown pop culture phenomenon.

AMC split the fifth and final season of “Breaking Bad” into two parts. This allowed potential new viewers to binge all of the episodes in the year-long gap from 2012 to 2013, helping to popularize Netflix’s “binge-viewing” model and inadvertently causing a seachange in the industry. “Breaking Bad” doubled its audience from 3 to 6 million when it returned in August 2013 for its final eight episodes, eventually going out with 10 million viewers for its explosive series finale.

“I think Netflix kept us on the air,” Gilligan told reporters after winning Best Drama at the 2013 Emmys. “Not only are we standing up here (with the Emmy), I don’t think our show would have even lasted beyond Season 2. … It’s a new era in television, and we’ve been very fortunate to reap the benefits.”

And that cultural gravitas, which hasn’t waned in the six years since the end of “Breaking Bad,” has allowed “El Camino” to draw so much excitement with such little marketing. “Downton Abbey” has charm and nostalgia, but “El Camino” has an even bigger carrot to dangle in front of fans: answers. The unknown fate of Jesse Pinkman has been the subject of online discussion and fan fiction for years, and now Gilligan will bring that speculation to rest. That’s a major cultural event, no matter how big the screen is.

Jeremy Fuster

Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • jeremy.fuster@thewrap.com

Tim Baysinger

Tim Baysinger

TV Reporter • tim.baysinger@thewrap.com • Twitter: @tim_bays



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