Box office linked to awards success

Underperformers face uphill battle for kudos

With so many awards contenders in the marketplace this year, it could be more difficult than ever to achieve the box office success that can boost serious kudos consideration.

B.O. standing is particularly important when it comes to trying to score a best picture nomination. Generally speaking, the Academy shies away from a box office underperformer, though there have been some exceptions, such as when a film is a critical darling or when a title is released late in the year.

“It’s really hard to climb out of a box office disaster. If you have no momentum going, it hurts you to send out screeners. It’s a perception issue,” one top studio exec says.

With the pipeline so crowded, specialty films are having a hard time breaking out.

Already, there are signs of B.O. casualties among awards hopefuls, including Universal’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” DreamWorks-Paramount’s “Things We Lost in the Fire” and Warner Bros.’ Brad Pitt/ Casey Affleck starrer “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”

Titles that are are managing to break through the B.O. chokehold this fall include Warners’ George Clooney starrer “Michael Clayton” and James Mangold’s Western remake “3:10 to Yuma,” starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. “Yuma,” which Lionsgate released in early September, has grossed more than $50 million domestically.

“For a genre picture to be taken seriously, it has to be established as a commerical hit. We’ve done that. We feel it positions us perfectly for the coming awards season,” Lionsgate prexy of theatrical films Tom Ortenberg says.

Here’s the B.O. strength of some specialty pics that got best picture noms: “Little Miss Sunshine” did $59.8 million domestically, “Brokeback Mountain” did $83 million, while “Sideways” grossed $71.5 million.

Box office is less of a factor for films released in late December, especially with an Academy qualifying run well before a film’s full rollout. After all, grosses can’t influence voters’ decisions if the film isn’t released yet.

Even better for the distributor, awards and nominations, especially Oscar noms, can boost grosses, which in turn can help a film gain credibility in kudos races. Last year “The Queen” did 30% of its box office during the nomination period.

Many titles with Oscar aspirations bow in the autumn, though.

Traditionally, specialty distribs have shied away from bowing a title earlier in the year out of fear that it will be forgotten. Lionsgate changed that mindset with “Crash,” which opened in May 2005 on its way to grossing $54.6 million domestically and winning best picture.

This year, Fox Searchlight released three of its awards contenders — “Waitress,” “Once” and “The Namesake” — in late spring and summer. All three did enough B.O. biz to stay in the awards conversation.

Conversely, a film can get a boost from strong box office — and from simply being widely seen. Case in point: “The Departed,” which walked away last year with the Oscar for best pic after opening at $37.9 million on its way to a cume of $132.4 million.

Box office success seems less important for other above-the-line categories, especially in the acting races. Paul Giamatti and Ben Kingsley both nabbed Oscar acting noms for underperformers “Cinderella Man” and “House of Sand and Fog,” respectively.

Films with low grosses can survive in the Academny Awards race in part because many Acad members have access to free screenings and DVD screeners. If their peers in their branch are buzzing about strong work in a little-seen film, they may go out of their way to see that film.

So while this year’s niche pics lack predecessors’ box office punch and the studios’s prestige releases aren’t catching fire, they may yet be heard from when nominations are announced next year.