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Can Oscar juice this year’s crop?

Odds against big box office bump

Don’t look for a lot of post-Oscar B.O. gold this year. The traditional bump is likely to be more of a blip.

Nommed pics already got some added biz during the period between the nominations announcement and the awards.

Of the best pic nominees, “Babel’s” worldwide B.O. bounced 52%, while “Letters From Iwo Jima” shot up 41% and “The Queen” waved to 32% more biz globally. (“Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Departed” had mostly finished their runs theatrically.)

But it remains to be seen how much more biz can be wrung from any wins.

Now, with three best-pic contenders already on DVD, the biggest boosts to be had are likely for winners in other categories. But “biggest” is a relative term: Except in the recent case of “Capote,” titles outside the best pic category — even high-profile categories like actor, actress and director — have historically not found much kick at the B.O. following their wins.

There is one best pic nominee that could get a good push from a win: Warner Bros.’ Clint Eastwood-directed “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

Warners’ distribution topper Dan Fellman says the film would definitely expand in the wake of such a win, but the exact number of screens hasn’t been decided upon. Pic, which spread to 781 screens at its widest after nine weeks in release, certainly could have room to expand.

Studio has kept a tight lid on the subtitled pic after rival Paramount went wide with Eastwood’s companion piece “Flags of Our Fathers,” but saw the film take in $33 million during an eight-week run in theaters.

Miramax’s “The Queen” could also have room to roam. Pic has taken in $51 million after 21 weeks, hitting 1,850 engagement at its widest earlier this month, but it’s still playing 807 theaters.

It remains to be seen whether “Dreamgirls,” which played 2,797 screens at its widest point, taking in some $100 million, could re-enter the marketplace. It earned the most noms (eight) of any pic this year, but without a best pic or director nod, the film looks less likely to make a post-

Oscars B.O. burst.

Fox Searchlight’s “The Last King of Scotland” and Picturehouse’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” missed out on noms for best picture, but both could look to capitalize on Oscar wins.

“(Films such as) ‘Last King of Scotland’ could get the biggest bumps,” says one distrib vet looking at this year’s Oscar race. “People may not have wanted to see a film about a murderous African dictator, but they probably want to see the best performance of the year if (Forest Whitaker) wins.”

Others question how much B.O. the two films could muster from wins outside the top pic category.

Says one rival studio exec: “I’d love to see it happen, but in reality, going back a number of years, you didn’t see a great jump for a picture that won in the best actor category.”

Adds another exec, “You’re talking about trading advertising dollars that only a best picture winner might be able to support.”

Like Fellman, distribution heads were waiting for the envelopes to be opened Feb. 25 night before they forged any plans for expansion.

Searchlight chief operating officer Steve Gilula says, “If we won on either ‘Last King

of Scotland’ or ‘Notes on a Scandal,’ we’d expand. We can’t tell yet how far.”

Pics like “King” or “Notes” have performed sturdily as limited releases in a year that hasn’t been a boon for “serious” movies, but neither has been released widely. Oscar wins could give them the pushes they need to corral more coin.

Oscar night was the opportunity many distribs were waiting for. Wins could help get these more serious pics into wider release after initial pushes with mainstream auds fell flat last fall and winter.

Searchlight “tried and failed,” according to Gilula, to initially launch “Scotland,” so the unit went to plan B, winding down the pic and crossing its fingers that Whitaker would be recognized as a way to galvanize auds and relaunch again.

“It was a gamble,” admits Gilula. “We looked at prototypes, and one was ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ That opened at the same time (of year) as ‘Scotland’ and got great reviews but no traction. The subject matter was so difficult. But it was able to ride (awards) and get attention. ‘Capote’ was the same way. That was very dry material.” Gilula is hoping the gamble pays off for “Last King.”

Thanks to its lead actor nomination, “King” has puttered to $13 million after 21 weeks in theaters. Its widest release has been 540 screens.

Having so many serious pics still sitting in limited release after months in theaters suggests studios and their subsids may have gone out too early last year, trying to capitalize on a time when auds customarily turn off the holiday blockbuster circuit for more serious films.

Another pic that could see a slight bump with Oscar night wins might be Warners’ “Blood Diamond,” which had trouble courting auds reluctant to see issue-oriented fare last fall. Pic is still playing in 226 locations after opening in more than 1,900 weeks ago.

Among best pic nominees, three are already on DVD: Fox Searchlight’s “Little Miss Sunshine” is well into its homevid window while Warner Bros.’ “The Departed” and Paramount Vantage’s “Babel” hit vidstore shelves Feb. 13 and Feb. 20, respectively.

Such titles probably wouldn’t return to the theatrical marketplace very widely even if they wanted to, since most major theater chains won’t accept pics that have hit the DVD market. Such pics can re-enter the theatrical window, but not make a wide blitz.

But other smaller nominated pics will likely wait to recoup on DVD whether they win or not.

New Line’s angsty drama “Little Children” is playing 90 engagements after 20 weeks. But with just under $5 million to date, even after three Oscar noms, New Line probably hasn’t made any expansion plans.

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