Nominees flex plex

Pix plan expansion in search of B.O. bump

HOLLYWOOD — The next five weekends make up a period of playtime that is a critical opportunity for nominated pics to parlay kudo attention into tickets sales.

Nearly every pic nominated in the Acad’s major categories is looking for a B.O. bump, which reflects the relatively low grosses — and the absence of a true blockbuster — in this year’s kudo contender crop.

Historically, the span between when Oscar nominations are announced and the statuettes are handed out — during which nominees are lavished with media attention and public interest in the competition is at its highest — has been lucrative for contending pics. Over the past five years, nominated pics have, on average, generated 25% of their total U.S. cume in the weeks between the noms and awards.

Making the most ambitious expansion this Friday is Warner Bros.’ “Million Dollar Baby,” which will expand from 147 playdates to 2,010. Pic, which scored seven noms, including picture, director and actor for Clint Eastwood, actress for Hilary Swank and supporting actor for Morgan Freeman, had planned for weeks to draft off of Acad attention with a Jan. 28 expansion. In limited release since Dec. 15, “Baby” has grossed $8.5 million

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“Our strategy was to hold back and wait until the nominations came out because we were confident in the film,” Warners distrib prexy Dan Fellman said. “That was our plan all along, and we’re sticking to it.”

Pouring it on

“Sideways” distrib Fox Searchlight also has an aggressive expansion in the works, boosting the pic’s run to around 1,700 theaters Friday. Pic, which scored five noms including best picture and director for Alexander Payne, played on 699 screens last weekend, which had been the pic’s widest point of release in its 15-week run. Cume so far is $32.4 million.

“We’ll be everywhere,” promised Searchlight distrib chief Steve Gilula, “pretty deep in the suburbs of the larger markets as well as many of the smaller markets.”

Gilula noted that move is part of a strategy in the works since December. “Coming out of the Christmas holidays, we made a calculated plan to start expanding after the Golden Globes and reach our wide point after the nominations,” he said.

“The Aviator,” from Miramax, Warners and Initial Entertainment, scored the most nominations with 11. It is the nominee in the widest release and has already taken in $58 million. Still, Miramax distrib chief Mike Rudnitsky said the company is hoping to realize a gain by boosting the theater count from 2,261 last weekend to around 2,600 Friday, with a further boost planned for Feb. 4.

Rudnitsky said the goals of the expansion are to “reach some of the smaller towns and some of Leonardo DiCaprio’s younger fan base.”

Finding its aud

Miramax also is hoping that the seven nominations for “Finding Neverland” help that pic, which has struggled outside the larger markets since it was released Nov. 12. Cume on the pic is $32.5 million.

“It hasn’t performed to our expectations in some of the smaller locations,” Rudnitsky said. “Our audience reaction has been strong, so hopefully we can now tap into a mainstream audience.”

“Neverland” will move up to around 1,200 theaters this weekend, which is a bit higher than the pic’s widest point of release, reached back on Jan. 7. Pic is playing at 869 locations.

Universal and Bristol Bay’s “Ray,” which earned six nominations, is the highest-grossing best picture contender, with $73.1 million since it opened Oct. 29. U distrib topper Nikki Rocco said they will expand the pic to 503 screens Friday, after playing on 293 last weekend.

But with much of the pic’s run completed and the DVD skedded for release Feb. 1, the expansion has modest commercial goals.

“The bring-back runs are solely to give people the opportunity to see it on the bigscreen if they wish, or own it if they wish,” Rocco said.

MGM and United Artists are planning to boost “Hotel Rwanda,” which scored three noms, to around 400 screens Friday and then to 750 to 800 screens Feb. 4, MGM distrib prexy Erik Lomis said.

“We’ve had a lot of plans in the works based on which nominations we got,” he said. “For a movie that is limited like ‘Rwanda,’ ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ or even ‘Sideways,’ this kind of notoriety is tremendous. It makes these films much more accessible to the mass audience.”

Surprised ‘Drake’

Fine Line will be more cautious with its nominated pics, including “Vera Drake” and “Maria Full of Grace.” Newly hired distrib senior VP Greg Forston said “Vera Drake” will add a few runs in New York, as well as return to the Los Angeles market this weekend to capitalize on its actress nom for Imelda Staunton and director and screenplay citations for Mike Leigh.

“It was in the works for Feb. 4, but coming in with director and screenplay, why not do it this week?” Forston said.

“Maria” was released last summer and has been out on DVD since Dec. 7, but the actress nomination for Catalina Sandino Moreno has Fine Line pondering a return to theaters.

“Frankly, everyone was caught off guard,” Forston said, “and we’re looking into doing something next week, but not this week.”

Sony Pictures Classics will double the run on “Being Julia,” which stars Annette Bening, from 65 to about 135 this weekend, said Tom Prassis, distrib chief. Released back on Oct. 15, pic has a cume of $3.8 million, and the widest it has played so far was 233 screens over the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Prassis said expansions will continue until the Oscar ceremony Feb. 27. “We’ll expand it incrementally,” he said. “The Golden Globes helped, this nomination helped, the SAG Awards will help. Each one will help people go see this movie.”