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First the award, then the rewards

Distributors of small-budget Oscar winners quickly revise strategies, arranging for wider releases and aggressive marketing.

March 25, 2003|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

While many Oscar celebrants awoke bleary-eyed Monday morning, studio executives were up early trying to book their winning films into more theaters to take advantage of the wins.

The biggest beneficiary likely was "The Pianist," but "Chicago" and "Nowhere in Africa" also stood to gain significantly by adding theaters. In terms of numbers, Disney's "Spirited Away" was making the biggest jump, from seven theaters to 800.

Because so many of the winners are modestly budgeted films that reached a relatively limited audience, the Oscar publicity is extremely valuable.

Take "The Pianist," a European production set in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. Initially released only in New York and Los Angeles, the film, distributed by Focus Features, eventually reached a wider audience but still had a hard time cutting through the clutter of releases in December and January. It has only grossed $20 million.

But the studio worked hard to get the movie noticed among industry insiders, knowing an Academy Award can boost a picture's box office by 10% to 20%.

Sunday night's triple win for the film, including a surprising victory for Roman Polanski as best director along with best actor and best adapted screenplay trophies, will give the film the oomph it needs at the box office, said Jack Foley, head of distribution for Focus Features.

Foley said the company will increase the number of screens from 540 to more than 800, starting Friday.

Focus has spent at least $20 million in its marketing and publicity push. But the Oscar wins promptly spurred exhibitors across the nation to inquire about booking the movie into their theaters. The movie is not being sold as a Holocaust drama, but as a story of the triumph of the human spirit.

The Oscar will greatly benefit another surprise winner -- Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her" -- which took the honor for original screenplay. The win will likely boost the film's take by as much as $2 million, said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, the U.S. distributor.

The studio will widen the film from 142 to 250 screens. The movie has grossed $8 million since its release in late November, mainly to art-house venues, and is Almodovar's highest-grossing film in the U.S.

Like Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics launched an aggressive campaign within the industry to get its film noticed, although it has spent only about $3 million in marketing. Not since 1966 has a foreign-language film won best original screenplay, and it is Spain's first victory in the category.

Disney plans to increase animated-feature winner "Spirited Away" from its current seven theaters to 800 on Friday. The new rollout for the film, which was released during the summer in 151 theaters, should provide a box office bump from its current tally of $5.4 million, but it will also raise consumer awareness for its home video release April 15.

Independent distributor Zeitgeist Films will expand its first winner, best foreign-language film "Nowhere in Africa," from 16 screens in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago to 33 in seven markets Friday, and the company said it is significantly increasing the advertising budget. By April 11, the company hopes to have the film on 51 screens.

"Chicago," the biggest winner of the evening, with six awards including best picture, is already in about 2,600 theaters. Miramax executives said they were trying to book 400 more for this weekend, which would be the widest release yet for the film.

A Paramount executive said the theater count for "The Hours" would remain near its current 628, but the company will revise the campaign and increase the ad budget significantly to take advantage of Nicole Kidman's win as best actress.

An executive at "Bowling for Columbine" distributor United Artists said the company was negotiating to boost it from about 100 theaters to between 150 and 200. He said UA was not concerned about repercussions from Michael Moore's outspoken acceptance speech.

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