The foreign-language Oscar race has developed a reputation as highly competitive and unpredictable.

It’s no surprise, then, that box office potential for the category’s top horses would be just as fickle, meaning an Oscar win (or even nomination) doesn’t always guarantee B.O. success.

Consider last year, when Sony Pictures Classics’ foreign-lingo champ, Danish helmer Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World,” topped out domestically at just $1.1 million, while SPC’s other high-profile nominee, “Incendies,” and Roadside Attractions’ “Biutiful” both saw significantly higher B.O. returns. “Incendies,” which cumed $6.9 million in the U.S. and Canada, tallied $2.1 million of its overall gross after bowing Stateside on April 22, 2010; “Biutiful” reached $5.1 million, having launched three months earlier on Jan. 28.

Roadside timed its widest expansion for “Biutiful” at 182 locations to coincide with the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 27. By comparison, “In a Better World” — at its widest — screened at just 51 playdates, bowing initially that year on April 1.

In 2009, however, the Acad’s foreign-language winner, “The Secret in Their Eyes,” earned a noteworthy $6.4 million. That year’s arguably higher-profile nominees, “The White Ribbon” and “A Prophet,” grossed just north of $2 million each. The latter pair earned strong notice from celebrated festival play — “The White Ribbon” won Cannes’ Palme d’Or, while “A Prophet” also played in Cannes competition and won the Grand Prix. (SPC handled domestic distribution for all three.)

Though Oscar glory doesn’t necessarily ensure a box office hit, it’s still a nice asset to have.

One of this year’s best bets — that is, judging by early fest traction — is Iranian entry “A Separation,” which won the Berlin Film Festival’s top prize. Sony Classics, which nabbed North American rights to the film in May, plans to release the pic Stateside on Dec. 30. SPC will distribute three additional foreign-language submissions — “Footnote,” from Israel; “In Darkness” (Poland); and “Where Do We Go Now?” (Lebanon) — though not until next year.

“In Darkness,” helmer Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, is the only one of SPC’s 2012 trio that can benefit immediately from a potential nom, launching Feb. 10. “Footnote” bows in March; “Where Do We Go Now?” is skedded for the second quarter.

Other potential short-listers, China’s “The Flowers of War,” from distrib Wrekin Hill, and Mexico’s “Miss Bala,” set to go through Fox Intl., will bow domestically in time to benefit from a nomination.

“Elite Squad: The Enemy Within,” Brazil’s official Oscar submission, hit Stateside plexes on Nov. 11 via Variance Films and has cumed $75,473. But on its home turf, the film posted a massive $62 million tally, making it Brazil’s highest-grossing release since reliable B.O. stats became available in 1970. The sequel first launched locally on Oct. 8, 2010.

High-profile pics with distribution and release history

Distribution: Drafthouse
Release date: 2012

“Elite Squad: The Enemy Within”
Distribution: Variance
Release date: Nov. 11
B.O.: $75,473

“The Flowers of War”
Distribution: Wrekin Hill
Release date: late December

“Le Havre”
Distribution: Janus Films
Release date: Oct. 21
B.O.: $358,701

“Declaration of War”
Distribution: Sundance Selects
Release date: Jan. 27

Distribution: Sundance Selects
Release date: Dec. 23

“The Turin Horse”
Distribution: The Cinema Guild
Release date: Feb. 10

“A Separation”
Distribution: Sony Classics
Release date: Dec. 30

Distribution: Sony Classics
Release date: March 9

“Where Do We Go Now?”
Distribution: Sony Classics
Release date: Second-quarter 2012

“Miss Bala”
Distribution: Fox Intl.
Release date: Jan. 20

“Happy, Happy”
Distribution: Magnolia
Release date: Sept. 16
B.O.: $45,154

“In Darkness”
Distribution: Sony Classics
Release date: Feb. 10

Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language 2012
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