Hollywood hustles to cash in on Oscar noms

The studios and their specialty arms are again gambling on Oscar nominations this year, but they’re running into new obstacles.

The period between the nominations and the Oscarcast are all-important for the life of the films. This year, that period (Jan. 22-Feb. 22) will see a glut of films in release — which will make screens tough to get, or keep.

The specialty films also will run into the release of some important commercial titles.

Plus, the timing of the presidential inauguration will force distribs to commit to dates that they may regret.

How did it get so dicey?

  •  Distributors held off releasing many of their awards-hopeful films until December. The late rollout was in reaction to a downturn at the specialty box office when their kudos contenders opened to disappointing B.O. in fall 2007.

  •  Not only are there more titles presently on the marquee, there are a record number of award titles slated to expand nationwide after nominations are announced Jan. 22, including “Frost/ Nixon,” “Milk,” “Revolutionary Road” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” Others have gone wide already.

  • Oscar nominations will be revealed on a Thursday this year. The announcement is usually made on a Tuesday, but because of the presidential inauguration, it was moved.

Distribs always pencil in screen dates for the weekend to capitalize on the Oscar noms, but adjust them on Tuesday afternoon if they’ve received more awards attention than expected (or less). But the Thursday announcement leaves no cushion for specialty divisions to pull back their post-nom plans, since theater runs will be locked down (which happens on Tuesday of every week). They also won’t have time to adjust expensive media buys if they do win the nominations they were counting on.

“You don’t have the leverage that you usually have. In our world, Thursday is too late,” one distribution exec says. “It could be a bloodbath, because it’s a very crowded marketplace.”

Ever since smaller titles usurped the awards process several years ago, specialty distribs have been busy writing, and rewriting, their collective rulebook. Major studios such as Universal and Paramount, which have “Frost/Nixon” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” respectively, also follow the same conventional wisdom.

The golden rule: Do everything you can in the four-week stretch between Academy Award nominations and Oscar ceremony. The five films landing in the best picture category can enjoy a significant box office bump as moviegoers try to catch up on their viewing before the kudofest Feb. 22.

Specialty units and studios are basing their entire release strategies on the assumption they will get a best picture nod. (Performance and directing nominations are fine, but nabbing best picture is paramount.)

On Jan. 23, Universal’s “Frost/Nixon,” DreamWorks/ Paramount’s “Revolutionary Road” and Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire” transform from limited releases into nationwide theaters. Focus Features’ “Milk” expands the following weekend.

That’s on top of award contenders that have already gone wide, such as “Doubt,” “Last Chance Harvey” and “Gran Torino,” or began as a wide release in the first place, i.e., “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

There are usually one or two titles that go wide just after Oscar noms in order to ride the wave, but never this many. A wide release is costly business, between prints and national media campaigns.

Following Oscar noms it’s also commonplace for a studio or specialty distrib to expand films that are well into their runs and have already played wide, such as “Michael Clayton” and “No Country for Old Men” last year. The associated costs of going wide aren’t as much, since additional prints have already been paid for.

Last year, best picture nominee “There Will Be Blood” grossed $20 million — half its entire domestic gross — between nominations and the Oscar kudocast. “Atonement” earned a quarter of its cume, or roughly $10 million.

“Juno,” another best picture candidate, had grossed $102.8 million heading into the nominations; by the telecast, its domestic gross was $131.8 million.

Of the titles hoping for best-picture attention, “Wall-E” and “The Dark Knight” would not see significant boosts at the box office (both have been released on DVD), but most of the other hopefuls could use the uptick. “Frost/Nixon” and “Milk” need Oscar’s love in particular.

In their limited runs, most of the specialty titles have done well, albeit to varying degrees.

“Slumdog,” now playing in roughly 600 theaters, is fast approaching the $40 million mark at the domestic box office, making it the most successful platform release of the season. Last week, the film saw a big weekday bump in the wake of its Globe wins. (While not as influential as the Oscars, the Golden Globes can drive box office traffic.)

Searchlight expects “Slumdog” to be playing in roughly 1,300 theaters as of Jan. 23.

That’s the same day that “Revolutionary Road” and “Frost/Nixon” expand nationwide as well.

“Road” has the advantage of being a newer release — the film opened Dec. 26 — as well as Kate Winslet’s Globes win for actress in a drama. “Road,” grossing $3.5 million through Jan. 12 million to date, opened in theaters before expanding to 38 and then 135.

“Frost/Nixon,” directed by Ron Howard and released on Dec. 5, has held back more than others in waiting for the nomination. Pic had cumed roughly $8 million as of Jan. 13, while its current theater count is about 200.

Some argue Universal should have been more aggressive with its rollout, versus waiting so deliberately for Oscar noms. On the distribution side, however, most execs believe U has absolutely taken the right approach in waiting because of the film’s arguably limited audience.

“Milk,” opening Nov. 21, also been holding steady at about 300 theaters, with a running cume of nearly $20 million through last week. The film will grow by 30 or 40 runs on Jan. 23, then go wide Jan. 30.

“The compression of films opening in December has created an intense competition for adult moviegoers, from ‘Button’ all the way through to ‘The Reader.’ There is just a tremendous amount of choice,” says Searchlight co-chief operating officer Steve Gilula.

“Button,” opening in 2,998 theaters on Christmas Day, had a running cume of $95.6 million through Jan. 13. The film has far outpaced expectations.

Miramax’s Meryl Streep-Philip Seymour Hoffman drama “Doubt” had amassed B.O. grosses of nearly $23.8 million through Jan. 13. The film opened Dec. 12 in 15 theaters, and is playing in nearly 1,300 theaters. “Doubt” was the one platform release that decided to go wide over Christmas, rather than wait. The move paid off.

As yet, the Weinstein Co. doesn’t have any plans to go wide with “Reader,” which is at 507 runs, with a gross of $5.9 million through Jan. 13.

Searchlight’s “The Wrestler,” with a gross of $3.2 through Jan. 13 , also isn’t expanding wide just yet.

The competition for screens is at an all-time high, even though it’s January, normally the quietest time of the year.

There are several commercial titles still going strong, plus a number of new entries, both on Jan. 16 and Jan. 23, including Paramount’s family entry “Hotel for Dogs,” Searchlight’s biopic “Notorious,” Lionsgate’s 3-D horror title “My Bloody Valentine,” Sony’s Kevin James comedy “Paul Blart Mall Cop,” New Line/WB fantasy “Inkheart” and Sony’s “Underworld 3.”

Warner Bros. is re-releasing “The Dark Knight” in roughly 145 Imax theaters and 100 conventional theaters on Jan. 23, also to play off Oscar noms. Studio is pushing hard for a best picture nom.

Despite the crush, specialty units and studios say taking their movies wide is a calculated risk that is worth taking.

“The reality is, you have a four-week playout to the Oscars. It’s the collector’s month, so to speak, and your drops through February will be modest. Some of these films will pop,” another distrib says.

The flip side: Some won’t.

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