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Specialty film schedules bend to awards

'Volver,' 'Little Children' planning slow expansions

By announcing the first kudos of the season, the National Board of Review fires the starting pistol for the distributors of specialty films planning their release schedules around awards.

The awards attention — which intensifies in the next eight days, with voting from L.A. and Gotham critics and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. — is especially crucial for specialty pics.

Sony Classics has kept “Volver,” which won the NBR award for foreign film, to 30 screens after five weeks, timing its rollout to the season.

Similarly, New Line has kept “Little Children” to 37 screens at its widest. In its nine weeks of release, pic has cumed $1.8 million; wider expansion is planned for January.

A very different kind of strategy has been employed for other niche titles. Paramount Vantage’s “Babel” (which made the NBR’s top-10 list), Sony’s “Marie Antoinette” and MGM’s “Bobby” have found a tough time crossing over to 1,000-screen rollouts after a limited start.

Warner Independent’s “The Painted Veil,” Miramax’s “Venus,” Searchlight’s “Notes on a Scandal,” the Weinstein Co.’s “Factory Girl” and MGM’s “Home of the Brave” open later this month, their bows timed to come in the midst of awards handout season.

But their distribs took a different tack with “Little Children” and “Volver,” opening them early enough to stand out from the glut but limiting their rollouts to gain traction in what has been a slow season for so many specialty pics.

“Volver” won’t go wide until Christmas and has so far hit $1.8 million while posting some of the season’s most impressive per-screen averages. (Pic’s lowest average has been about $12,600 off 30 in its most recent frame, its highest roughly $39,500 off its five-screen bow.)

Though “Children” was shut out by the NBR, New Line is bullish on its chances with upcoming awards.

“We’ve always thought that the film’s strongest card would be critical recognition and word of mouth,” said New Line production chief Toby Emmerich. “It’s about keeping your gun powder dry until awards kick in. This is not an easy movie to sell based on its subject matter or storyline. So the plan was to put it out to the tastemaker markets and let momentum build.”

The studio resisted a wide rollout even after the pic posted a healthy $19,500 per-playdate average when it bowed on five screens back in early October.

That number fell to about $7,500 when “Children” expanded to 32 screens in its third weekend.

New Line said the pic has been growing in Santa Monica, Pasadena and Gotham.

“We’re waiting for critical mass to build,” New Line distrib topper David Tuckerman said of the decision to keep a tight lid on the pic. “It has been coming along, but we’ve been waiting for (awards nominations). We may have gone a little early.”

The decision to hold a film back till awards kick in can cause ruffled feathers among a studio and the eager agents, talent and producers who want to make sure the studio is bullish on the film and pushing it enough.