A nod from Oscar always helps, as films such as "Slumdog Millionaire" discovered when the glow of Thursday's Academy Award nominations caused a surge in contenders' ticket sales over the weekend.
Although they couldn't beat out such fresher, undecorated fare as "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans," the top two revenue generators this weekend, all of the Oscar nominees for best picture got a significant boost.
Many of the nominees had been in limited release, but studios added theaters and award-season spectators followed the glint of Oscar gold. Critically acclaimed heavyweights such as "The Reader" and "Milk" sold more tickets than in previous weeks.
"Slumdog," a colorful Fox Searchlight movie set in Mumbai, made nearly a fifth of its total ticket sales in its 11th week after grabbing 10 Academy Award nods. The film saw an 80% boom week over week in ticket sales, partly by adding 829 theaters to its previous limited-release run.
The rags-to-riches film, itself a Cinderella tale after averting an original direct-to-DVD fate, blazed into fifth place by collecting $10.6 million of its $55.9-million total and is expected to surpass the $100-million mark eventually.
"This little film has got terrific word of mouth, and it's one of the specialty films that ends on an up note when so many of the nominated films are serious and depressing," said Sheila DeLoach, senior vice president of distribution for Fox Searchlight. "It's the underdog movie that became the top dog."
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," from Paramount, pushed into the ninth spot after earning 13 nominations, the most this year. It garnered $6 million to give it $111 million in ticket sales over five weeks.
With a Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination for lead actor Mickey Rourke, Fox Searchlight's "The Wrestler" was released in 422 more theaters and watched its ticket sales jump 117% to an estimated $3.7 million this weekend. Universal's "Frost/Nixon" soared 351% when it tacked 946 theaters onto its original 153-theater run.
Even "The Dark Knight," which landed Heath Ledger a posthumous nod for best supporting actor, pulled in $661,000 for Warner Bros. during a special re-release in theaters.
"A nomination will never hurt your box office, with what it gets you in audience credibility," said Media by Numbers President Paul Dergarabedian. "It's like a golden stamp of approval, and all these films are capitalizing on it."
"Doubt," however, was the lone disappointment. In its seventh week, and with five nods for acting and screenplay, the Miramax film's ticket sales fell 31% to $852,000.
On Saturday night, David and Audrey Gregory of Tustin emerged from the Irvine Spectrum theater raving about "Benjamin Button," which Audrey had itched to watch since viewing a preview.
"And now that it's up for Academy Awards, that just made it a must-see," said David, 59, a general contractor.
The pair, who plan to see "Slumdog" and "The Reader," said they run through a list of Oscar contenders every year.
"It's like our own private game, watching the awards from our perspective," said Audrey, 56, a healthcare executive assistant. "We want to decide for ourselves which is best."
The top films this weekend, however, were not in Oscar's sights.
Ticket sales for the low-budget Sony/Columbia comedy "Paul Blart" dropped 32% in its second week from its opening weekend but managed to hold on to the top spot with an estimated $21.5 million over the weekend.
"People truly are in the mood to laugh right now, to escape for a few hours," said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution for Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Sony continued its winning streak with the opening of Screen Gems' "Underworld," which came in second by pulling in an estimated $20.7 million from a mostly male audience. Currently doing double duty as a journalist in "Frost/Nixon," Michael Sheen plays a werewolf freedom fighter with a vampire lover in the third installment of the gothic "Underworld" franchise.
Warner Bros.' "Gran Torino," with Clint Eastwood as a crotchety Korean War veteran who bonds with his Hmong neighbors, brought in $16 million in its seventh week and landed in third place. In a strong second week, Paramount's children's tale "Hotel for Dogs" followed with an estimated $12.4 million over the weekend.
Overall, Hollywood did well this week compared with the same week last year, with 13.8% more ticket sales and year-to-date attendance up 20.9%.
"I don't particularly care about the nominations, though once the winners come out, I might care a little more," said Matt Green, 20, a UC Irvine student trying to decide on a movie at the Spectrum. "I just didn't want to stay in, and there was nothing else to do tonight."
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Preliminary results in the U.S. and Canada, based on studio projections:
*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Weeks (studio) (millions) (millions) 1 Paul Blart: Mall Cop $21.5 $64.8 2 (Sony/Columbia)
2 Underworld: Rise of the Lycans 20.7 20.7 1 (Sony/Screen Gems)
3 Gran Torino (Warner Bros.) 16.0 97.6 7
4 Hotel for Dogs (Paramount) 12.4 37.0 2
5 Slumdog Millionaire 10.6 55.9 11 (Fox Searchlight)
6 My Bloody Valentine 3-D 10.1 37.7 2 (Lionsgate)
7 Inkheart (Warner Bros.) 7.7 7.7 1
8 Bride Wars (Fox) 7.0 48.7 3
9 The Curious Case of Benjamin 6.0 111.0 5 Button (Paramount)
10 Notorious (Fox Searchlight) 5.7 31.8 2 *--*
*--* 3-day gross Change Year-to-date gross Change (in millions) from 2008 (in millions) from 2008 $160 +13.8% $860.6 +21.8% *--*
Note: A movie may be shown on more than one screen at each venue.
Source: Media by Numbers