Studios hope for Oscar to induce profits

Once again, the rift between box office performance and Oscar nominations prompts the question: Does commercial success have any influence on the awards process?

Or have the Academy Awards become the engine that studios and their specialty units use to help drive the box office?

Many say it’s the latter. Exhibit A: “The Dark Knight,” which has grossed $997 million at the worldwide box office, was shut out of the best-pic category despite its momentum in other awards races.

Likewise, Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” received no noms, even though the film has already grossed $78.2 million.

Total domestic ticket sales to date for the five films landing in the best-picture category is $185.5 million — with $104 million grossed by Paramount’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” alone. That’s an average gross per pic of $37.1 million.

Last year, ticket sales for the five best-pic nominees totaled $302.6 million for the same period, and $246.6 the year before. Three years ago, it was even lower than this year, $177.5 million.

Among this year’s crop, Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire” grossed north of $44 million through Jan. 20; Focus Features’ “Milk,” $20.6 million; the Weinstein Co.’s “The Reader,” $7.9 million; and Universal’s “Frost/Nixon,” $8.8 million.

Of those four, only “Slumdog” has shown signs of being a sleeper hit. The pic’s 10 Oscar noms — the most after the 13 picked up by “Button” — should help it cross over to mainstream auds.

“The Reader” and “Frost/Nixon” seem to need the spotlight of the best-pic nom the most for box office leverage.

While critically acclaimed, director Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” has essentially been waiting in the wings until now. The film is a tough sell and Universal had to be careful about going too wide too quickly.

Competing studio execs say U took the right approach in betting on a best-picture nomination, and then expanding.

“From a marketing standpoint, these nominations give the studio something to work with,” Howard told Variety the day of the nominations. “They took a risk on something that was the furthest thing from a high-concept idea.”

“Frost/Nixon,” “Slumdog” and “Milk” are going wide in the wake of the noms, demonstrating the studios’ faith in Oscar oomph. Nommed films, especially specialty titles, can see the best grosses of their runs come during the four-week stretch between the nominations and awards ceremony.

But a tough sell can sometimes remain a tough sell. Neither “Munich” nor “Letters From Iwo Jima” profited from their spot in the best-pic category.

Overseas marketers also have their eyes on Oscar noms when planning release skeds.

“Slumdog” is showing signs of becoming a global specialty hit, grossing north of $17 million overseas through Jan. 18, much of it from the U.K. box office.

Fox execs were in India for the premiere of “Slumdog” when the Oscar noms were announced Jan. 22. Aside from domestic distribution, Fox has the pic in India, where “Slumdog” is the first local-language release of FoxStar Studios.

“It seems like the entire press of India is assembled here and when we announced the 10 nominations, I think you could hear the roar in New Delhi,” Fox co-chair Jim Gianopulos said in a telephone interview from Mumbai.

“Button” has built-in international potential, given Brad Pitt’s star power and Oscar prestige.

Handled by Warner Bros. overseas, “Button” was only in 1,167 foreign locations last weekend after bowing in Mexico and Brazil for a $4.4 million weekend and a $14 million foreign cume. Warners is planning premieres for “Button” in London, Berlin, Paris and Tokyo.

“Frost/Nixon” expands this weekend to the U.K., where David Frost and Michael Sheen are well-known and the stage play of the same named originated. The key weekend is Feb. 6, with launches in Germany, Russia and Italy.

Timothy M. Gray and Dave McNary contributed to this report.

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