Specialty pics pounce on Oscar buzz

Films hope nominations will boost box office

With Oscar nominations out, the race now moves to the multiplex as a crowded pack of specialty films try to use best picture nominations to fill theater seats.

Indeed, four of the five films nominated in the coveted top category — Universal’s “Frost/Nixon,” Focus Features’ “Milk,” Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire” and the Weinstein Co.’s “The Reader” — built their entire release plans around getting the coveted nom.

It was a bold, and risky, move.

One film that lost the bet was DreamWorks/Paramount Vantage’s “Revolutionary Road,” which had campaigned for best picture, as well as lead performances.

“Road” is already committed to expanding nationwide today, and can’t reverse course.

“Frost/Nixon” and “Slumdog” likewise will open nationwide today for the first time in their limited runs. That’s an expensive proposition, between print costs and marketing coin. “Milk” is expanding its theater count only slightly this weekend, but goes nationwide next.

“Reader’s” best pic nom was the surprise of the day, and puts Harvey Weinstein back in the center of the awards contest. Film is holding steady this weekend at 367 locations, but is now looking to go wide next weekend.

Tethering a film’s box office performance to awards season has become a popular strategy in recent years, as specialty films began dominating the Oscars. Such titles open in a limited number of runs, and then expand significantly after the announcement of noms.

Quite simply, the nominations are a linchpin in selling specialty titles to the public.

It’s no wonder. The four-week stretch between Oscar nominations and the ceremony can whip up significant grosses for films earning best pic nominations, or multiple noms. Many moviegoers, and particularly adults, want to be in the know before the Academy Awards ceremony (Feb. 22 this year).

Last year, for example, “There Will Be Blood” grossed $20 million, or half of its domestic cume, during that stretch. “Atonement” earned a quarter of its cume, or roughly $10 million.

Among this year’s crop of best picture noms, some needed more help than others.

Arguably, no film was banking on a best picture nom more than “Frost/Nixon,” which has been overshadowed at the box office by other titles. Film, opening in November, has earned $8.8 million to date, well behind the $20.6 million earned through Tuesday by “Milk,” which opened one week earlier.

“Milk” has a different set of challenges. There’s a sense that the film has burned through its core demo. Whether it can crossover, even with the nominations, is a question.

Both U and Focus have reason to feel hopeful.

Focus didn’t start aggressively expanding “Brokeback Mountain” until after Oscar nominations.

And Paramount Vantage’s “Babel,” opening in a limited run in late October 2006, expanded out to 1,251 runs, then contracted all the way down to 173 until just before Oscar nominations. It went wide again after nominations were announced, earning north of $12 million, nearly a third of the $34.2 million domestic cume, by the time of the ceremony.

“The Reader” is a wild card. The Weinstein Co. doesn’t have the advantage of being able to rely on deep studio pockets for marketing coin. Film, grossing $8 million to date, could certainly be invigorated by its nominations.

At the same time, a best picture nod doesn’t always help, as evidenced by “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Munich.”

“Slumdog” is a sleeper hit, grossing $44.2 million to date. Last weekend, film played on 582 runs; Today, it expands to more than 1,200 theaters.

Paramount’s big-budget “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the fifth film landing in the best picture category, should enjoy a bump, although the studio isn’t stressing. “Button” was a wide release from the get-go, grossing $103.4 million since it opened Dec. 25.

At 13, “Button” earned the most Oscar nominations, followed by “Slumdog” with 10. Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight” — which was surprisingly shut out of the best picture contest — and “Milk” both earned eight, while “Frost/Nixon” and “Reader” earned five each. Miramax’s “Doubt” also picked up five.

“Doubt” went wide over Christmas, looking to take advantage of the fact that other specialty films were only playing in limited runs as they awaited Golden Globes and Oscar noms. The move paid off, with the film earning $25.6 million to date.

Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” shut out completely, also is a proven commodity at the B.O., grossing north of $78.1 million to date.

Warners hardly needs a box office bump for “Dark Knight,” which has grossed $997,000 worldwide. Still, Warners is re-releasing the tentpole today in more than 100 Imax theaters and roughly 100 conventional theaters. Studio is looking for the awards run to push “Dark Knight” over the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office (current cume is $997 million). It would only the fourth film to cross $1 billion.

On the more indie side, several Sony Pictures Classics titles earned top nods, including “Waltz With Bashir” and “The Class” for foreign-language film, and actress noms for Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married” and Melissa Leo for “Frozen River.”

Sony is expanding “Bashir” to 25 theaters today. Pic has cumed $551,146 to date. “Class” opens Jan. 30 in Gotham and L.A. Foreign-language pics often get a box office boost from Oscar noms.

Performance noms don’t generally provide the same bump that a best pic nomination does, but every bit helps. Sony Classics is taking “Rachel” out again on 370 screens this weekend. Film, at the tail end of its run, as grossed $10.8 million to date.

Sony Classics will reopen “Frozen River” in New York and L.A., also on Jan. 30. Film’s domestic gross is $2.3 million.

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