Oscar nominees don't always see increase

Every awards season is different, but several factors have converged to make this year like no other.

  • Best-picture contenders usually see a hefty box office bump, but this year’s gains are less than dazzling.

  • Award titles once had January to themselves, but this year there were a record number of studio pics, as well as a glut of specialty titles, that stole the spotlight.

  • The box office bump is usually reserved for best-picture contenders. Three best-pic nominees — “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk” and “The Reader” — are being outgrossed by other pics, including “Revolutionary Road,” “The Wrestler” and “Doubt.”

  • “Slumdog Millionaire” is the first film since the 2003 “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” to win every major guild award and the Golden Globe. Rivals are aware that Oscar history is replete with best-picture upsets, and they are rethinking their campaigns as they try to balance their hope with the fact that conglom parents are tightening the purse strings.

Actors were asked to work harder than ever on Phase 1 of the awards season, which culminates with the nominations. But those actors are feeling abandoned in the scaled-back campaigns of Phase 2, the post-nom weeks.

Campaigning isn’t just about winning — it’s a way studio execs show actors and filmmakers that they are proud of the film and want to stay in business with them. And agents have been known to woo clients by saying “Why isn’t the studio promoting your film more? If we represented you, the campaigning for your film would be much more intense.”

It takes a lot of money to fly a director or actor — and their entourages — to London for the BAFTAs, then to New York and L.A. for a reception in his or her honor, or for interviews.

This year, there are more receptions for the entire group of nominees rather than an individual. Vanity spending is way down. And studios have focused their attention on a few key contenders rather than spreading the largess around among all their nominees.

As Phase II of the awards season kicked in with the Oscar noms, most studios seemed to be cutting their campaign spending.

Conventional wisdom said that rivals were conceding the race to “Slumdog.” But that’s not really the case. In fact, studio execs say the global economy is requiring a rethink.

That’s small consolation to the actors who worked hard on endless Q&A’s in Phase 1, or their agents and managers.

Parties often are underwritten by sponsors, so they’re still happening.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (nominee leader, with 13) began as a wide release and maintained its momentum. It’s the only best-pic contender to pass $100 million. In fact, at this point, it’s earned about the same amount as the other four nominees combined.

One member of the “Button” team insists that none of the best-pic nominees are giving up. That means that the campaigning will continue until Feb. 17, the deadline for final Oscar ballots.

They have good reason. A few years ago, “Brokeback Mountain” was the heavy favorite, but Lionsgate’s “Crash” was the surprise winner. In the most famous example, Warner Bros.’ 1997 “L.A. Confidential” swept all the critics awards, but Oscar’s big prize went to “Titanic.”

“It’s a very, very weird season,” a member of the “Button” team says. “It’s hard to make heads or tails of it.”

Certainly the box office figures are confusing. In recent years, the four-week stretch between the announcements and the Academy Awards have produced boffo returns for nominated pics. Niche films especially benefited from the attention, which helped broaden a film’s reach beyond the arthouse crowd as it grows its theater count.

January is traditionally a graveyard for smaller horror titles and films that have been sitting on the shelf, but that’s changing as the release calendar grows more and more crowded. That may not be good news for the specialty biz.

“Slumdog” was already a B.O. hit by the time the noms were announced, and has been going strong since.

But since the nom announcement Jan. 22, “Frost/Nixon” has grossed $5.3 million; “The Reader,” $4.4 million; and “Milk,” $2.7 million. In contrast, “There Will Be Blood” grossed $10 million over the same time period, and “Atonement,” $8.2 million. The previous season, “The Queen” grossed $8.2 million, although “Letters From Iwo Jima” earned just $4.2 million.

Coincidence or not, the lackluster showing follows the biggest January ever in terms of domestic ticket sales, meaning that best-picture candidates had to compete with B.O. favorite titles like Warner Bros.’ “Gran Torino” and even sleeper hit “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” the Sony comedy that’s drawing its fair share of older moviegoers. Fox’s Liam Neeson action-thriller “Taken” also drew a heavily adult aud in its strong debut.

Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.

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