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Best Film Nod Is Just the Ticket for Lucky Three

With 'Gladiator' and 'Brockovich' on video, 'Traffic,' 'Chocolat' and 'Crouching Tiger' are likely to get a box-office boost.


Three of the best picture Oscar nominees--"Chocolat," "Traffic" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"--should get the biggest box-office boost among the nominated films in the weeks leading to the Academy Awards on March 25, based on their studios' release and marketing patterns. "Crouching Tiger," in particular, should benefit from its 10 nominations--the most ever for a foreign-language film--as it goes into wider release.

The two other best picture nominees--"Gladiator" and "Erin Brockovich"--opened last spring and are already on video, so they don't stand to gain much at the box office (both are playing in just a few theaters); "Brockovich" actually debuts on the Starz pay-cable channel Saturday.

But the three other nominees opened very late last year and have, thus far, been in only moderately wide release. All three are likely to make box-office hay with wider releases starting Friday--the beginning of the long Presidents Day weekend.

"Crouching Tiger" has already grossed more than $60 million, a record for a foreign film, but has yet to penetrate smaller towns and suburbs, having played on at most 1,150 screens. Sony Pictures Classics' co-president, Michael Barker, says the multiple nominations will help the film expand to 1,600 theaters for the holiday weekend, when it should get a substantial bump up from last weekend's $5.4-million gross. The 10 nominations, Barker says, "will make the film's subtitles even more of a nonissue," especially in rural areas with just a few movie screens, where foreign films generally don't play. With six weeks until the Oscar ceremony and even more time if the film picks up statuettes, "Crouching Tiger" has a shot at the $100-million mark, especially if it tops $70 million this holiday weekend.

"Traffic" is also a candidate to reach $100 million, with $71 million so far on a maximum of 1,734 screens. With its five key nominations--picture, director, supporting actor, screenplay and editing--and an ensemble cast headed by Michael Douglas, Steven Soderbergh's drug-wars drama will broaden to more than 2,000 screens this weekend and next, many in very small towns.

The best picture nomination, says Russell Schwartz, president of "Traffic's" distributor, USA Films, gives the movie a stronger claim on one of those screens against new releases from the major studios.

"Chocolat," a surprise best picture nominee, also has most of its five nominations in key categories--best actress, supporting actress, screenplay and score--and will get the traditional push from its Oscar-savvy studio, Miramax.

"It's already running ahead of [the studio's 2000 nominee] 'Cider House Rules,' " says Miramax marketing executive Marci Granata. "Chocolat" has grossed about $27 million in 1,148 theaters over a nine-week period. The plan is to move onto 1,500 screens this weekend and eventually 2,000 by Oscar night.

The best picture nomination for "Cider House Rules" last year took the film from the mid-$20-million range to just above $57 million. Granata figures "Chocolat" could match that figure and maybe even do slightly better.

Also expected to benefit on a smaller scale is Sony Pictures Classics' "Pollock," which picked up two acting nominations: Ed Harris, as artist Jackson Pollock, for best actor, and Marcia Gay Harden for supporting actress.

It's the second year in a row that Sony Pictures Classics has surprised everyone with dual nominations. Last year it was Sean Penn and Samantha Morton nominated in the actor and supporting actress categories for Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown." But that film had already been playing in theaters for some time when the nominations were announced and got only a modest boost. "Pollock's" regular release had been set for Friday, timed to the Oscar nominations announcement (the film screened during a one-week qualifying engagement in December).

Barker says he will open the movie in three cities this weekend but will accelerate the film's roll-out.

"The expansion we would have done into the top 50 markets over a three-month period will be compacted into the next four weeks."

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