Distribs strategize to make most of noms

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences chose to recognize a slate of films as diverse as their box office performance.

Topping the list are 20th Century Fox’s “Avatar” and Summit’s “The Hurt Locker,” both receiving nine noms, including picture and director.

“Avatar” has cumed $2.05 billion worldwide as of Tuesday and just became the top domestic grosser of all time. Not since “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and before that “Titanic,” has the Academy nominated such a blockbuster.

Meanwhile, “The Hurt Locker,” after debuting at Venice in 2008 and struggling to find U.S. distribution before landing at Summit, grossed $12.7 million domestically from 535 locations at its widest. Pic was released on DVD on Jan. 12, but within hours of the nominations, the studio announced plans to re-release the film this weekend at approximately 100 screens.

Films like “Avatar” and Warner Bros.’ “The Blind Side,” which also received a best picture nomination, hardly need the B.O. boost that Oscar noms can provide. “The Blind Side” has done bang-up business, earning $238.1 million as it nears the end of its domestic run.

The biggest boosts usually come for specialty pics like Fox Searchlight’s “Crazy Heart.” The film has been building momentum since the Golden Globes, grossing $6.7 million, and will expand to some 800 theaters Friday.

With the expansion to 10 picture nominees, however, it’s not clear how many other films are set to benefit at the box office.

“Locker,” as well as the Weinstein Co. and Universal’s “Inglourious Basterds,” Sony’s “District 9″ and Disney/Pixar’s “Up,” have all been released on DVD, leaving a more manageable six films still in theatrical release.

Lionsgate’s “Precious,” which started in a limited run and has cumed $45.5 million in an expanded release, will broaden from 220 to 650 theaters this weekend. Sony Classics’ “An Education” and Focus Features’ “A Serious Man” have been in theatrical release for several months.

Paramount’s “Up in the Air” opened Dec. 23 and is thus well into its theatrical run but could be one of the leading beneficiaries of noms attention. Pic drew six mentions Tuesday: picture, director, actor, two supporting actress bids and adapted screenplay. Having already cumed $73.3 million, “Up in the Air” held steady in its ninth frame with $2.8 million from 1,430 screens.

In the acting races, the Acad went for more of the same, nominating thesps who have garnered steady recognition throughout the awards season.

One notable addition is Maggie Gyllenhaal for her supporting turn in “Crazy Heart.” Co-star Jeff Bridges, who won the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for lead actor, received his fifth Oscar nom for his portrayal of a boozy country musician.

Sony Classics’ historical drama “The Last Station,” which scored the highest per-screen average last weekend with $10,099 at nine locations, earned noms for stars Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer.

The distrib also will look to capitalize on a lead actress nom for Carey Mulligan in “An Education,” coupled with noms for pic and adapted screenplay, as it expands the pic to 760 screens. Pic has cumed $8.8 million in limited release since its Oct. 9 bow.

Most nominated films have been in theaters for several months, but distribs are timing expansions specifically for awards potential.

France’s entry in the foreign-language category, “A Prophet,” will open Feb. 26, less than two weeks before the Oscarcast on March 7, while Sony Classics’ other foreign-language contender, German pic “The White Ribbon,” will expand in the top 100 markets Oscar weekend.

In the case of populist fare like “Avatar” and “The Blind Side,” kudos recognition may spur repeat viewings in subsequent frames.

“Avatar” dropped only 10% in its seventh frame last weekend, while “The Blind Side” was down 25% with $4.1 million in its tenth.

Meanwhile, “Up” hit DVD shelves on Nov. 10, but Disney’s other animated feature nominee, “The Princess and the Frog,” may benefit from Oscar attention both theatrically (it’s still in release and bows in the U.K. this weekend) and when it hits DVD on March 16, especially given its two song mentions.

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