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Can kudos titles travel?

Smaller pix less likely to get B.O. boost

Hollywood’s awards season momentum is clearly tilting toward specialty titles like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

That’s presenting a unique challenge in foreign markets, where idiosyncratic American-type stories won’t resonate nearly as well as last year’s crop of awards favorites, led by “Million Dollar Baby” with $120 million and “The Aviator” with $111 million.

A trio of studio films — Fox’s “Walk the Line,” Warner’s “Syriana” and U’s “Munich” — still have the potential to see benefit overseas from Oscar buzz should they cop multiple Academy Award nominations Jan. 31. But this year probably won’t come close to last year, when the five nominees for best picture grossed $385 million combined in overseas grosses, including the star-free “Sideways” with $38 million.

“This really is a year where you don’t have a lot of the big Hollywood movies getting the buzz for awards,” notes Jay Sands, VP of Sony Pictures Releasing Intl. “You always want to maximize your leverage from nominations, and the smaller films are the ones that can really benefit from that.”

It’s not hopeless, of course, but Sony’s hardly thinking blockbuster when it comes to “Capote,” a nuanced examination of the author’s creation of “In Cold Blood.” Sony’s waiting until two weeks after Oscar nominations to open “Capote” in foreign markets, starting several major markets Feb. 17.

More to the point — the releases will be smallish, with the biggest launch coming in France, set for 50 playdates.

Key dates for strategizing the size of runs in foreign markets are Jan. 16, when Golden Globe winners are announced, and Oscar nominations on Jan. 31.

“I think we’ll see a lot of plans firm up after the Globes,” notes Heta Paarte, senior VP of international marketing and distribution for Focus.

Focus, which sold off the foreign territories for “Brokeback Mountain,” has had ambitious plans for the cowboy love story ever since it debuted at the Venice Film Festival. It’s already opened “Mountain” in the U.K. through Entertainment with a fairly impressive $1.5 million at 125 playdates, and plans to add 25 screens this weekend.

Focus remains undeterred by possible reaction from conservative groups over the content, and plans to emphasize the dual elements of strong critical support plus the universality of the romance.

“Particularly in Europe, we haven’t had any controversy,” Paarte asserts. “We think that ‘Brokeback’ will play as much more than a story about American cowboys.”

With “Brokeback” possessing the best buzz, Focus isn’t waiting for Oscar noms. The film opens next weekend in France, Italy, Spain and Taiwan, and on Jan. 26 in Australia.

“Good Night, and Good Luck,” handled overseas by Mark Cuban’s 2929 shingle, has already established itself as a viable foreign presence with a trio of solid performances so far — $3 million in Italy following a Venice premiere, $1.5 million in Australia and $1 million in France in its first week.

The distrib’s international prexy, Shebnum Askin, notes that George Clooney’s star power helps — but only up to a point. “For the audiences that we’re seeking, the Oscar nominations are the real heavyweights in terms of influence,” she adds.

“Good Night” will go into Spain on Feb. 10 and the U.K. on Feb. 17 but will hold off on Germany and Japan until after the Oscars.

Fox is hoping “Walk the Line” can measure up to the standard set by “Ray,” which grossed nearly $50 million overseas last year. But marketing a Johnny Cash biopic will probably be harder than marketing a Ray Charles biopic.

“Without the awards buzz, this would be a very difficult film to market overseas,” admits Craig Dehmel, Fox Intl. exec director of sales and strategy. “Ever since we showed it at Cine Expo last June, the perception has always been that it’s a very good movie but it’s a very American story.”

With Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon widely viewed as strong bets for Oscar noms, Fox is slotting “Line” into the first weekend in February for release in Australia, Germany, the U.K., Mexico and Spain — aiming for releases in the 150- to 250-screen range. It’s even going to Japan on Feb. 11, even though conventional thinking is that one needs an Oscar win to play in Japan.

“Walk the Line” will be heavily marketed to women, with Witherspoon set to make a promo swing through Europe this week.

Lionsgate’s “Crash” has grossed $28.5 million foreign but still hasn’t opened in Japan, where it’s set for a Feb. 24 launch following a promo tour by the cast. Producer Bob Yari believes the pic should pass $30 million and credits “universal” themes in the pic for creating strong word of mouth overseas.

Major Oscar noms could also help “Munich” and “Syriana.” “It will be a big, broad opening in every market,” promises UIP prexy Andrew Cripps of “Munich,” which bows on the Jan. 26-28 weekend in three dozen territories.

With its explosive political bent, “Syriana” is waiting until after Oscar noms, with a rollout starting Feb. 9.

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