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Highbrow films (such as 'Frost/Nixon') wait and see

Nowadays, the release schedules for such films often await awards bumps.

January 08, 2009|John Horn

"I've Loved You So Long" is the kind of acclaimed foreign-language movie that should do solid business in unprovincial locations such as New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Nashville and St. Louis. Ten weeks after Sony Pictures Classics first released the film, though, the Kristin Scott Thomas drama still hasn't reached any one of those cities.

The holdup? The awards season.

Hollywood's annual self-celebration carnival kicks into high gear this weekend with the Golden Globe awards, followed by Jan. 22's nominations for the Oscars. As soon as the dust settles, the makers of some of the year's best-reviewed films will see what commercial benefits they stand to reap.

Much of the chatter around town has focused on predictable award issues: Will Sean Penn from "Milk" prevail over "Frost/Nixon's" Frank Langella, or will voters figure out if they prefer Kate Winslet for being emotionally naked in "Revolutionary Road" or physically naked in "The Reader."

Yet a more material question looms over the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards: Can awards attention turn serious dramas into money-makers? When the Globe nominations were announced on Dec. 11, "Frost/Nixon" director Ron Howard said awards attention "was cool before. Now it's essential."

The last several years have grown increasingly tough for highbrow movies, even those with all-star casts. Audiences have steered clear of numerous quality dramas, and studio executives all the more frequently are putting their most ambitious screenplays on the back burner, in favor of mass-appeal popcorn fare.

For those companies still making distinctive movies, awards attention has become more important than ever before, as it can tip a film's profit-and-loss statement from red to black. Not surprisingly, a number of distributors are waiting until the day after the Oscar nominations are announced to expand their movies into wide national release.

Paramount Vantage plans to broaden the release of "Revolutionary Road," currently showing in 38 locations, to some 600 screens on Jan. 23. Now playing in 205 locations, "Frost/Nixon" will add about 1,000 more theaters on that same date, Universal says.

"It's slower than any release of a Universal film that I can ever remember," Adam Fogelson, Universal's marketing and distribution chief, says of its handling of "Frost/Nixon," which opened Dec. 5. Fogelson said the studio's release plan was always focused around the Oscars, for which "Frost/Nixon" is seen as a nomination lock for best picture and best actor for Langella.

"With all due respect to all of the other awards and year-end tributes, at the end of the season of accolades, the Academy Award nominations solidify which films need to be seen," Fogelson says.

Fox Searchlight will exponentially increase its release plans for "The Wrestler" (from about 48 locations this coming weekend to about 450 on Jan. 23) in expectation of a best actor nomination for star Mickey Rourke. The studio also will more than double the distribution scheme for best picture favorite "Slumdog Millionaire" from its current run in 612 theaters to about 1,400 locations that weekend.

Focus Features similarly will expand "Milk," now playing in about 300 locations, a week after the nominations are announced. The studio's James Schamus says in addition to telling moviegoers that "Milk" is a quality film, awards attention can remind audiences that it's "celebratory -- the awards would really put the seal of approval on the fact that it's a big entertainment."

Even Warner Bros., whose "The Dark Knight" is the second-highest-grossing movie of all time and is already out on DVD, will return its blockbuster to theaters and Imax screens after the Oscar nominations, among which the Batman sequel likely will collect a supporting actor nomination for the late Heath Ledger and is a contender for best picture.

In addition to "I've Loved You So Long," Sony Classics is distributing a small handful of movies whose ultimate prospects will hinge on success at the Globes and the Oscars.

The specialized film division's award hopefuls include "Rachel Getting Married" (an Oscar contender for Globe nominee Anne Hathaway as best actress), "Frozen River" (Melissa Leo for best actress), "Waltz With Bashir" (as foreign-language and animated film) and "The Class" (foreign language).

Of those films, only "Rachel Getting Married" is an absolute success so far, having grossed $10.3 million since premiering Oct. 3. Sony Classics will add about 700 screens on Jan. 23. "If it wins a Golden Globe, we will expand even wider," says Sony Classics' co-head, Michael Barker. "That gives it more of a profile to those people who haven't seen it."

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