Some films disappear with fast fade-out

Only three months ago, the field of Oscar hopefuls included movies like “Miss Potter,” “Factory Girl,” “Home of the Brave” and “A Good Year.”

Now, it’s hard to remember when or even if they ever came out.

They are just a few of the awards season casualties that seemed to come and go at the box office, a testament not only to the clutter of high-minded specialty pics at year’s end but the frenzy of a compressed awards season.

While the Oscar nominations have breathed life into slow starters such as “Venus,” “Little Children” and “The Last King of Scotland,” without that kind of kudos thrust, plenty of fall and winter pics remain in limbo.

Fall and winter months are usually when audiences embrace serious films — as with last year’s groundswell for “Brokeback Mountain.” Only a handful of movies broke through this year, and many were swallowed by studio competition.

Films get lost in the pack for a variety of reasons — perhaps foremost being that they have a lack of awards or ongoing critical support.

Regardless of whether crix or awards bodies hail a pic, any project still needs audience interest.

Some of the specialty films over the fall and winter “were really dismissed out of hand by the public,” says one specialty unit’s distribution head. “When that happens, you can be dead meat. Can you resurrect something that has been dismissed by popular culture? Those are the big questions these companies are now dealing with.”

At the level of the studio subsids, and the studios that are releasing their own rival arty pics in fall frames, catching on with the arthouse crowd for a couple of weekends of high per-screen averages isn’t enough.

“The deeper you can get into the mainstream, there’s more value there,” says one studio exec. “You don’t want to remain with the elite. You want a picture to be commercial.”

Think not just “A Good Year” but “Catch a Fire,” “Running With Scissors,” Tony-pedigreed “The History Boys” and “Marie Antoinette.” After much attention at Cannes, “Marie” was in theaters for just seven weeks and mustered less than $16 million before being beheaded.

HBO and Universal’s hip- hop musical “Idlewild,” was another pic lost in the mix in the same year that “Dreamgirls” was able to sell itself as an urban-friendly musical.

Some pictures with big-name talent suffered from the lack of positive reviews, like the Nicole Kidman pic “Fur” and “The Good German,” directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney. “German,” after six weeks of domestic release, hasn’t yet reached $1 million. And despite the novelty of being the second Truman Capote-writes-“In Cold Blood” pics, “Infamous” all but went MIA.

But the exact reasons for movies’ disappearances can be perplexing. Just a year ago, Focus Features’ “The Constant Gardener” was a lofty, issue-oriented picture set in Africa that got surprising traction starting around Labor Day. Despite similar attributes, however, Focus found its “Catch a Fire” was adrift.

Perhaps no company had more lost titles this season than the Weinstein Co. The indie rolled out four movies, via MGM, late last month on two ore fewer screens: “Miss Potter,” “Factory Girl,” “Arthur and the Invisibles” and “Fast Track.”

“Potter,” which starred Renee Zellweger, and “Girl,” with Sienna Miller, were seen as TWC’s best hopes for Oscar nominations this year, along with Anthony Minghella’s “Breaking and Entering.”

Political drama “Bobby” was a TWC pic that performed well in limited release, but fell through the cracks when it went wide.

Without the firepower of nominations behind them, it’s not clear whether these pics will find an audience theatrically.

“Factory Girl” soon will get a limited release in urban areas where Miller may be better known. Zach Braff starrer “Fast Track,” which seemed to evaporate, will actually aim for a comeback in March, retitled “The Ex.”

Distribs dream of a scenario like “Pollock,” released in 2000. It did an Academy run in mid-December, then disappeared for two months before returning in mid-February. With its Oscar nominations, it racked up $8.6 million at the domestic box office.

But back then the Oscars were a month later. With the crush of movies that come in the shortened awards season, it is getting tougher to re-enter the marketplace after a picture already has been released once and underperformed.

In January 2003, Miramax sent out the critically lauded “City of God,” only to watch the pic languish at the box office. A full year later, the distributor still wouldn’t let the picture die, eventually leveraging four Oscar nominations, including director.

When Fox Searchlight released “The Last King of Scotland” in September, it earned positive reviews but ho-hum returns — the pic was pulling in an anemic per-screen average of just $3,819 in its fourth weekend. It seemed the studio had released it too early.

So Searchlight dropped “Scotland” to four screens and waited to relaunch it until it started picking up award nominations.

But it remains to be seen whether pic’s Oscar nom will lead to a spike at the box office.

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