Window to world B.O.

Newly created 'Oscar Alley' an o'seas boon to decorated dramas

In the next two months, dramatic fare such as “Ray,” “Closer” and “Sideways” will flood key Euro territories over a four-week frame nicknamed “Oscar Alley” by overseas distribs. In a world ruled by tentpoles, the window — created when the ceremony was pushed forward to late February — is a vital period when adult-oriented pics can generate serious B.O.

During Oscar Alley last year, picture noms generated an average 66% bump in their foreign B.O. up until the kudocast. Some films with a thesp nod saw fivefold spikes. Essentially, the game plan is to keep a movie in play so if it scores a prime Oscar win, a studio strikes gold internationally.

Roll of the dice

Since 1999, pic wins have translated into 72% gains; an actor win, 30%; with actress wins quadrupling a pic’s foreign B.O.

“You have to bet a little,” says New Line chief operating officer Rolf Mittweg about overseas strategy. “When an actor or actress has a nomination, and you think they have a chance of winning, you pick your moment.”

While the majors sidestep one another abroad during the summer, they’ve made no bones about rubbing shoulders right after New Year’s. On the weekend of Jan. 26, “Ray,” Closer” and ” Sideways” will bow in Australia. Another dramatic face-off will be “Million Dollar Baby” and “Closer” in the U.K. on Jan. 14.

Foreign distribs have pointed out that each of this year’s crop of dramas carries a stigma with foreign auds. “Ray” is an urban pic, a sub-genre with limited to no appeal. Stellar reviews aside, “Sideways” doesn’t boast any global stars. Some distribs question “Closer’s” broad appeal.

No matter what the foreign bias is to American dramas, overseas distribs are constantly thinking out of the box.

“The director outside of North America is important,” says Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands. “They’re a more recognized form of marketing outside of North American than inside.”

Capitalizing on the Euro esteem for directors, Alexander Payne toured “Sideways” during November; stopping at film fests in Turin and Thessaloniki, before doing a press blitzkrieg in London, Berlin and Paris.

Sony also believes that the popularity of director Mike Nichols, coupled with five Golden Globe noms, will harness B.O. power for “Closer” abroad, despite its dicey content.

“Euro tastes are well accustomed to the sexual nature of films,” says Sony Intl. Senior veep Mark Zucker, who cites the international success of another adult pic, “Eyes Wide Shut” ($105 million foreign B.O. to $56 million domestic).

Lost in translation

With Western Europe being Oscar Alley’s prime stomping ground, thanks to the continent’s kudo-friendly viewing habits, Japan is the toughest nut to crack.

For Nippon auds, it’s all about the best picture winner. As such, most Oscarworthy fare opens close to the kudocast, or afterwards. “American Beauty” bowed in Japan approximately a month after its picture win, grossing over $18 million — the pic’s third-highest territory.

If a pic fails to win best picture, count on low returns in Japan. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” which bowed a day before the Oscarcast in Japan, stalled at $9 million.

With this hindsight, most studios are dating their dramas after the Oscars: “The Aviator” will bow on March 26, “Sideways” in April, and “Closer” in May.

Teflon epics

For distribs, “Aviator” is the surest bet at the foreign B.O. this Oscar season — even if it isn’t nominated. Why? Distribs consider it a star-driven epic; a genre which doesn’t live or die by awards. Epics only thrive more with kudo buzz and will typically bow day and date, if not soon after domestic. With four noms and no wins, “The Last Samurai” managed to grab $344 million abroad (vs. $111 million Stateside).

Leonardo DiCaprio is another asset for “Aviator;” his pics’ overseas B.O. continually outstripping their stateside returns. “Gangs of New York” alone grossed $120 million abroad, 54% higher than domestic.

With 2005 marking the second year of Oscar Alley, the question remains whether the skinny frame hinders overseas results given the plethora of offerings flooding the global marketplace during that time.

Sands’ theory is that the short frame effected the overall overseas B.O. of “Cold Mountain,” which finished its foreign run with $80 million, 16% off domestic. While the B.O. jump for best pic noms by Oscar night has decreased from a 78% average in 2003 to 66% in 2004, Oscar publicity still spurs overseas results — especially for actor-driven vehicles. “Lost in Translation” bested its domestic take by Oscar night with $62 million during its alley release (final international cume was $72 million).

“In Oscar Alley, there’s more pressure to go wider sooner, so there’s less of a chance to roll out a movie,” says Sands. “You need to accelerate marketing dollars sooner and it’s a riskier financial game. It’s a matter of how quickly the film will be discovered.”