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The Oscars

For a few films, box office bonanza

'Mystic River' and 'Lost in Translation' both have profited from the awards season attention.

March 01, 2004|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

Although the abbreviated awards season reduced the number of moviegoing weekends between the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, "Mystic River," Clint Eastwood's story of three friends and the legacy of childhood trauma, is one of a handful of movies that has been boosted at the box office thanks to awards attention.

The movie, which opened the New York Film Festival on Oct. 3, had taken in $55 million in the U.S. and Canada before the Jan. 27 Oscar nominations announcement. The figure is now up to $82 million, and will rise a little higher with Sean Penn's win for best actor.

Warner Bros. kept the film in theaters through the holidays, despite dwindling business -- concentrating on major cities. It then increased the number of theaters from 137 to 1,527 on Jan. 23 to take advantage of that weekend's Golden Globes (at which the film's Tim Robbins won the best supporting actor award) and potential Oscar nods the following Tuesday.

" 'Mystic River' benefited the most of any of the best-picture nominees," Dan Fellman, president of theatrical distribution for Warner Bros., said of the movie, which drew nods for best picture, adapted screenplay and multiple acting honors. The film took in "about $27 million for just the academy run, which added nearly 50% to the gross," Fellman said. "Year-end lists and the awards season have created buzz -- as well as a mainstream audience. We expect to take in an additional $6 million to $10 million before we're done."

Still, marketing experts note, no film has recorded the dramatic gains of 2002's "Chicago," which, after receiving 13 nominations, boosted its gross from $50.6 million to $134 million -- adding $10 million more after its best picture win.

"Lost in Translation," Sofia Coppola's tale of two disenchanted Americans who cross paths in Tokyo, also experienced a solid, if less substantial, leap. Playing on 342 screens in late January, it expanded to 633 locations after receiving Oscar nominations for best picture, director, actor and original screenplay (for which it won on Sunday) and winning Golden Globes for best picture/comedy, best actor/comedy and best screenplay. The gross, slightly under $35 million before the Oscar nods, has since risen to almost $44 million -- particularly welcome in light of a Feb. 3 home video release that exhibitors had feared would dilute their share of the audience.

"The movie, released in September, looked like it was going to be an academy player, even then," said Jack Foley, president of theatrical distribution for Focus Features. "January was about getting it back out in the marketplace ... . The February awards turned out to be a marketing tool on the home video end, as well. Though it's a rarity for the DVD to come out while the movie is still in theaters, sales were 400,000 to 500,000 [units] over the initial orders."

Three other best picture nominees, already in wide release, saw relatively fewer benefits. Although Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" dominated the awards season run-up to the Oscars, it added only $23 million to its whopping $338.3-million gross -- not bad, but a less dramatic share of the film's total. Fewer theaters (1,400, down from a high of 3,700 in December) and new movies in the marketplace have taken their toll, notes Rolf Mittweg, president and chief operating officer of worldwide distribution and marketing for New Line Cinema. Still, when it comes to box office performance, the movie is 10% ahead of the previous installment of the trilogy -- and the number of theaters should rise to between 2,100 and 2,500 by this weekend in anticipation of Oscar results. To bring in those who haven't seen the first two, the firm will place brief synopses of the preceding films in its ads.

"It's usually smaller films like '[The] English Patient' and 'American Beauty' that benefit most from awards," Mittweg said. "Expectations for blockbusters are limited. And when a movie grosses $400 million domestically -- and over a billion dollars worldwide -- it's hardly a disappointment. We're the No. 2 movie of all time [after 'Titanic'] and we're not done yet. If we win, it could add an additional $20 million to $25 million -- and the overseas runs are just beginning. "Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," in which a British warship goes head-to-head with a French privateer during the Napoleonic Wars, had also exhausted most of its box-office potential. Since its nominations for best picture and director, the film has added only $6 million to its $85-million gross. Now in 382 locations, the film would have been out of theaters in mid-January without the prospect of awards, conceded Bruce Snyder, 20th Century Fox's president of domestic distribution.

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