Oscar nom's boost limited this year

The box office bump usually enjoyed by Oscar’s best picture contenders still hasn’t quite materialized for many in this year’s class.

That malaise has puzzled studio specialty units and indie producers, who have come to rely on Oscar noms to promote titles that are otherwise difficult sells and expand their reach.

Combined, this year’s five best picture nominees have grossed $273.2 million at the domestic B.O., compared to $316.6 million for the five last year. That’s an average of $54.6 million vs. $63.3 million in 2008.

Take away runaway hit Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire”–whose cume was $88.1 million through Monday — and Paramount’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” ($122.5 million), and the grosses for the other three contenders are some of the lowest in years for top noms.

Through Monday, Universal’s “Frost/Nixon” had cumed $16.5 million; Focus Features’ “Milk,” $26.7 million; and the Weinstein Co.’s “The Reader,” $19.4 million.

In contrast, “There Will Be Blood” had grossed $32.4 million at roughly the same point in its run last year; “Atonement,” $48.1 million; and “No Country for Old Men,” $61.9 million; “Michael Clayton,” $47.9 million; and “Juno” — the most commercial of the five nominees — $126.3 million.

That isn’t to say that “Milk” and “The Reader,” in particular, are financial losers. “The Reader’s” gross may not have crossed $20 million yet, but it’s nearly doubled its gross since the nomination.

And in the case of “Milk,” it was in solid shape by the time it received its pic nom.

Yet what’s clear is that the cachet of a nomination isn’t a fool-proof guarantee. This season, there are many more films in the marketplace that are working and diverting attention away from the Oscar race, including both commercial studio movies and specialty pics nominated in other categories.

Convention says that the bump comes only from a best picture nom, but this year, films landing in other top categories are doing just as well, such as Searchlight’s “The Wrestler,” which has grossed $18.7 million. Miramax’s “Doubt” has a cume of more than $30 million.

And although shut out of the Oscar race, Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” has grossed $129.7 million to date, including $7.6 million over Presidents Day weekend.

For the four-day holiday weekend, “Slumdog” earned $8.7 million; “Button,” $1.9 million; “Frost/Nixon,” $596,700; “Milk,” $1 million; and “The Reader,” $2.5 million.

Elsewhere at the specialty box office over the weekend, IFC Films’ “Gomorrah” scored the highest per location average of 2009 as it opened in five theaters in New York and L.A., grossing an estimated $113,107 over the four-day holiday weekend for an location average of $20,540.

The Sicilian crime drama also nabbed the biggest opening at the IFC Center in Gotham, grossing $40,408 for the weekend.

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