'Waking Life' looks to get golden shine from noms

Let’s climb way out on a limb and assume that “Monsters Inc.” and “Shrek” get two of the three nominations for the Academy’s animated feature Oscar. That leaves seven pictures in the running for the remaining slot in the nominations, which will be announced Feb. 14.

Pushing hardest to secure the No. 3 nom is Fox Searchlight, distributor of Richard Linklater’s dreamlike arthouse toon, “Waking Life.”

The category also includes such notable pics as Paramount/Nickelodeon’s “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” Sony’s groundbreaking (but commercially weak) “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” and Warner Bros.’ “Osmosis Jones.” The others are largely unknown.

Central to Fox Searchlight’s yen for an animation Oscar are financial concerns: Studio execs believe that a best animation nomination could make a significant contribution to the final box office tally for “Waking Life.”

“We think an Oscar nomination could catapult the film into a whole new realm at the box office,” says Nancy Utley, president of marketing at Fox Searchlight. “That kind of recognition would expose it to so many more people.”

Fox Searchlight hopes “Waking” will follow the pattern set by specialty darling “Boys Don’t Cry,” which won several awards, including a Golden Globe and a best actress Oscar for star Hilary Swank — all of which boosted that pic’s box office from a flat $2 million before the awards season to $12 million after the glitter settled.

Searchlight estimates that a best toon nomination could quadruple “Waking Life’s” current $2.2 million tally — not to mention the added video business, which Utley says could easily surpass theater sales. It’s not exactly DreamWorks or Disney dollars, but for an R-rated toon feature made in true indie fashion — on the cheap, with Austin artists working on relatively low-cost Macintosh computers — every million helps.

But those small numbers also mean Searchlight can’t afford to run a blockbuster “for your consideration” ad campaign either. The studio has Linklater on the stump, however, doing Q&As at numerous screenings. And the “Waking Life” awards campaign is making literal use of the film’s artistic credentials — among Oscar-season events planned were shows at art galleries in Beverly Hills and New York City featuring images from the film.

The financial incentive doesn’t apply to everybody. The G-rated 1999 Par/Nick animated pic, “The Rugrats Movie,” took in $156 million without benefit of Academy Awards, so it’s no surprise that Oscar figures less prominently in those companies’ marketing plans for “Jimmy Neutron.”

“We don’t really have a strategy or campaign,” says “Neutron” producer Albie Hecht. “But we’re very excited there’s an animation category now.”

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