Best pix and B.O.: No end in sight

This year’s best picture nominees have a chance to add significantly to their theatrical box office takes, particularly the eventual winner.

That might seem to be stating the obvious, but when “The Silence of the Lambs” was collecting its Oscars last year, the film was already on video shelves.

All five nominess this year are still in theatrical release, and as one studio exec pointed out, “The best picture award is the one that means something in small-town America. There are people who only see one film a year, the Oscar winner.”

Warner Bros. expects the nine nominations received by “Unforgiven” to be the best advertising the studio can have for its scheduled rerelease tomorrow on 800 -plus screens, according to Barry Reardon, distribution chief.

“Unforgiven,” which has grossed $ 75 million to date, returned in limited release after copping several year-end critics’ awards for best picture. Though the film is largely played out, the multiple nominations could add $ 3 million to $ 5 million over the next several weeks, said Reardon. And as it’s considered the front-runner at this point, a best picture win could toss another $ 10 million into the till.

The strong lure of Oscars overseas may also prompt an offshore rerelease of “Unforgiven,” which had a disappointing firstrun in foreign markets, grossing less than $ 25 million to date — surprising given Eastwood’s marquee value and the subject matter. Most recent playdate, Australia, has done fairly well.

Sony Pictures Classics’ “Howards End,” which tied with “Unforgiven” with nine nominations, has never been out of theatrical release since its March 13, 1992, debut. Having played 1,200 firstrun engagements over the past year, the period piece has accumulated $ 18 million to date, strong business for an independent release. On Friday, “Howards End” will broaden to 275 runs (it’s lately been on fewer than 75 screens), many of them in cities in which it’s already played. The nomination pileup should generate interest from those who haven’t seen it yet, and even some repeat business.

“That’s been our strategy from the start,” said Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, SPC senior exex, who credit the film’s continuous 70mm engagements in N.Y., L.A. and other major cities as one of the reasons the film received so many nominations. The presentation focused the attention of Academy members on the quality aspects of the film (dramatic and technical achievements) and the continuous run maintained momentum.

The Oscar push could propel the film’s gross into the $ 20 million-plus level. Major category wins could push it even higher. Since “Howards End” is not up against a definite video release date (it’s scheduled for a summer video debut), Barker and Bernard feel they’ll be able to squeeze every last theatrical cent out of the film.

The surprise indie nominee, “The Crying Game,” could easily double its to-date $ 16 million box office total as it expands from a limited 239-house run to 725 prints tomorrow. Film has been grossing between $ 1.1 million and $ 1.5 million a weekend for the past several weeks. “We have no idea how high is up on this one,” said Gerry Rich, senior VP of marketing for Miramax Pictures.

The expansion, which will be backed with some national TV ad spots, was already in the works, regardless of the Oscar outcome, according to Rich. But they certainly help. “Six nominations anoints the film as a must-see to a much broader audience.”

If the film performs on a mass level the way it has in upscale situations (it’s already played in almost 100 major markets), Miramax is prepared to add screens. Otherwise, the 725-theater spread will remain in place for the several weeks leading up to the Oscar ceremonies March 29.

Rich did not wish to comment on the impact of Jaye Davidson’s nomination. “The press has tended to be the film’s biggest champion, and I don’t think they’ll do anything to compromise the film or Neil Jordan,” he said.

Although it’s done the lion’s share of its business, with $ 124 million to date, the four nominations for “A Few Good Men” will stabilize the movie theatrically, according to Castle Rock principal Martin Shafer.

Now on about 1,200 screens, “Men” grossed almost $ 3.3 million over the Presidents Day holiday. The absence of nominations would have meant a logical decline in theaters and grosses, but Columbia should be able to hold on to screens supported by Oscar ballyhoo ads. Shafer opines that the final total should be near $ 150 million — more, if the film wins the top prize.

The same is true for “Scent of a Woman,” which is also on 1,200-plus screens. The four major nominations will lengthen the run, said MCA Motion Picture Group chairman Tom Pollock. “Scent” has already grossed about $ 40 million and should end up in the area of $ 60 million — closer to $ 70 million, should it win in any of the major categories.

But the real benefit of the Oscar nominations for “Scent” will come overseas, Pollock said. It is the only one of the best picture nominees that hasn’t been released abroad. Film opens Feb. 26 in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, Latin America and Asia throughout March. “That will be a great help,” Pollock said, “because the Oscar nominations are more important commercially abroad.”

Other Oscar beneficiaries include SPC’s “Indochine,” for which Barker and Bernard campaigned heavily to secure Catherine Deneuve’s best actress nomination. That, coupled with the foreign film acknowledgement, should help the film over the normal $ 5 million hump for subtitled pictures, they say. “Indochine” has already grossed $ 1.7 million since Christmas Day and expands to 51 screens tomorrow (up from 31).

Universal’s “Lorenzo’s Oil” pulled down a best actress and screenplay nomination. With less than $ 6 million to date, the demanding film is playing strongly only in major markets like New York and L.A. Oscar approbation might validate it to a broader audience. Additional screens, from the current 208, will be added over the next several weeks. Again, the major upside is seen overseas. “Lorenzo’s Oil” debuts in Australia and England next week (director George Miller is an Aussie).

Miramax’s “Passion Fish,” which also garnered best actress and screenplay nominations, will continue to roll out slowly over a period of several months, as did the company’s “Enchanted April” (which received three nods). No large Oscar-related break is planned for either film. “Passion Fish” has grossed almost $ 1 million to date and “Enchanted April” is nearing $ 13 million since its release last July.

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