Oscar noms mean instant biz

Slow-grossing specialty titles add screens during voting period to reap B.O. riches

To get a sense of the power Oscar has at the box office, take a look at the Jan. 25 grosses. Just hours after Adrien Brody and Academy prexy Frank Pierson unveiled the 2004 Acad nominations, receipts for the day’s big winners surged.

Literally overnight, “The Aviator,” which scored 11 noms, zoomed from being the No. 8 picture over the previous weekend to the No. 3 spot with $681,000, behind only “Are We There Yet?” and “Meet the Fockers.”

“Million Dollar Baby,” playing in only 147 theaters, pulled in $249,000 on Tuesday, a 42% increase over the $175,000 it taken in the week before.

“Sideways,” with five noms, and “Hotel Rwanda,” with three, had similar results, posting the best weekday grosses of their runs.

Studios released a dizzying armada of specialty pics last fall leading to a crowded marketplace that some distribs blamed for the lack so far of a big breakout niche hit.

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The last hope of many distribs with struggling specialty pics was that the Oscars, and the concomitant attention, would jumpstart their biz. Now that the lucky few have been chosen, they have five weekends before the Oscar ceremony to convert their kudos cachet into cash.

None of the ten pictures nominated in the big four categories — picture, director, actor and actress — has yet grossed $100 million. Pic that’s banked the most so far is “Ray,” with a cume of $73 million.

All that said, last year’s critical darling “Lost in Translation” had grossed $35 million when Oscar noms were announced; “Sideways” has $32 million. And while there’s no “Lord of the Rings”-sized blockbuster, the $59 million gross for “The Aviator” is on par with the $59 million “Mystic River” had when it was nominated.

Nonetheless, the next five weeks represent a critical opportunity for the nominated pics to become commercial successes.

Over the past five years, films nominated in the big four categories and still in release have picked up 25% of their entire gross in the weeks between noms and the Oscar ceremony. One impact of the shortened Acad schedule, however, is that the time between nominations and awards has been reduced from six to five weekends.

On average, nominees have grossed $13.3 million in this period, which is just a hair under the $13.6 million average that winners have banked after their kudos.

But even Oscar winners usually make more money before the ceremony than later when they’re polishing their statuettes. For instance, two years ago, “Chicago” had grossed $64 million before it was nominated 13 times. Six weeks later, it had earned an additional $70 million. After winning six of those contests, it took in $37 million.

For small films, the effects of a nomination are often dramatic. Last year, “Monster” had grossed just $6 million when Charlize Theron was nominated for lead actress. By Oscar night, it had added $20 million to its cume. With Theron as Oscar winner, the pic took in just another $8 million.

Nominees leaving the Kodak Theater as losers can still make a bundle before the ceremonies. “Cold Mountain” won a supporting actress nod for Renee Zellweger but was blanked in six other categories. Even so, the attention it garnered as an Oscar contender helped it rack up $20 million between the nominations and the ceremony, bringing its cume to $93 million. (Afterward, interest in the pic dropped sharply; “Mountain” grossed just $2.9 million after the kudocast.)

This year, studios are doing their best to take financial advantage of their noms. Warner Bros. built its entire release strategy for “Million Dollar Baby” around the awards calendar. Skedded for release Dec. 15, pic was on just 147 screens before it expanded nationally to 2,010 locations the Friday after nominations.

“Sideways” likewise looked to capitalize on its noms as Fox Searchlight boosted its run from 699 to 1,694.

Universal did expand “Ray” to 510 theaters following its six citations, but with the DVD release skedded for Feb. 1, it is homevid unit sales that may benefit the most from awards buzz.

“We’re going to do over 50% of our business in the first six days. So the key is finding the best date and the best opportunity,” explains U homevid prexy Craig Kornblau.

“We are going to maximize our DVD marketing campaign, and therefore maximize our profits and sales, by taking advantage of all the attention the film’s receiving from these accolades.”

The flip side of this kudo coin, though, is the tight bind in which distribs find themselves when a film with Oscar hopes doesn’t attract awards attention.

After its success selling “Monster” on Theron’s perf, Newmarket hoped to repeat the feat this year with Kevin Bacon in “The Woodsman.” The only nom for Searchlight’s “Kinsey” is for Laura Linney as supporting actress, a category difficult to build a marketing campaign around. Likewise, Warner Independent Pictures had to settle for two noms for “A Very Long Engagement” in art direction and cinematography.

Without the hook of a big Acad nom, it becomes difficult for the distribs to justify heavy ad spends on these titles. Making matters bleaker, the cutbacks in the promo budget comes just as pics in the Oscar pack start to suck up most of the media oxygen.

Plan B for these disappointed pics is mostly a scramble to hold onto screens, scrapp any plans for a national expansion, and try to play off as best you can.

“We placed our bets,” says one of the many distrib execs who gambled and lost on titles this year. “And now we’re going up against all these (Oscar nominated) pictures. February is a very tough time to get attention.”