Uggie and Berenice Bejo from "The Artist." (The Weinstein Company )
"The Artist" is loved in Hollywood. Now the black-and-white ode to silent films is ready to romance the rest of America.
With 10 Academy Award nominations, "The Artist" is well positioned to seek an Oscar boost at the box office. More than any other major awards contender, it needs the help. While movies like "The Descendants" and "War Horse" have captured significant box office earnings, "The Artist" has earned only $12.1 million.
But as the Weinstein Co. has already discovered since unveiling its $14-million production last Thanksgiving, selling the type of movie that hasn't rarely played in theaters since the 1920s is a painstaking business — despite universal critical acclaim.
Although the picture has played very well at theaters in and around major cities — showing little sign of decline as word of mouth continues to bring in new fans — its expansion into smaller markets has been challenged.
Last weekend, coming off its Golden Globe win for best picture comedy or musical, the Weinstein Co. expanded "Artist" to 662 theaters, up from 216, to mid-size markets like Green Bay, Wis.; Greenville, N.C.; and Omaha, Neb.
But the results were discouraging, according to people with access to detailed box office data but not authorized to discuss them publicly. In the approximately 200 theaters where it was already playing, "The Artist" grossed an average of $5,829, up slightly from $5,524 the previous weekend. In about 450 new locations, it averaged $2,594.
Among theaters with the lowest grosses — under $500 for the entire weekend — were ones in Frisco, Texas, and Sunrise, Fla.
But Weinstein Co. executives expect a cautious response in markets that don't often see specialty films.
"The movie takes word of mouth endorsement in addition to the awareness and interest that we are driving through advertisements," said Stephen Bruno, the New York-based studio's president of marketing. "When people see the movie and talk to their friends, the grosses hold up."
With hopes of maxing out the movie's potential by building word of mouth, the Weinstein Co. is slowly expanding "The Artist" over the next month, rather than making a huge jump. This weekend the picture will widen to about 900 theaters, Bruno said, from 662. If box office receipts don't plummet, that number will continue to grow. The independent studio is also launching new television advertisements, Bruno said, to highlight the Oscar nominations. In an effort to make sure it isn't seen as a "niche" film only for the Hollywood crowd, the commercials carry a broader message. "We are reminding people it's a very entertaining movie with a story of love and romance," Bruno said.
Oscar contenders in the past have used their nominations as springboards to commercial success. Clint Eastwood's boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby" had collected only $8.5 million before its seven nominations and four wins in 2005, and went on to collect $100.5 million. In 2008, Paul Thomas Anderson's epic "There Will Be Blood" went from $8.7 million to $40.2 million over the same period.
But Oscar love doesn't always make a difference. Last year "127 Hours" got six nominations but only increased its earnings from $11 million to $18 million.
Early data indicate that an "Artist" Oscar bounce is already happening. Ticket sales on Fandango.com spiked 190% in the first five hours after nominations were announced early Tuesday morning.
"The Descendants" experienced a 65% increase, while sales for "Hugo" didn't go up at all despite its 11 nominations.
Coming off a strong post-Golden Globes weekend during which it grossed virtually the same amount as "The Artist" despite playing at 100 fewer theaters, "The Descendants" is expanding enormously on Friday. The best picture winner in the drama category starring George Clooney, which got five Oscar nominations and has grossed $51.3 million, will nearly quadruple its location count to more than 1,900.
"We were planning to be in about 1,500, but the fact that our grosses were up 13% after the Golden Globes, even though we lost theaters, changed that," said Sheila DeLoach, executive vice president of distribution for "Descendants" distributor Fox Searchlight.
Among other best picture nominees still in theaters, Paramount Pictures will modestly expand "Hugo" from 650 theaters last weekend to 944 on Friday. The Nov. 23 release's ticket sales have flattened out this month at $56 million but Tuesday's Oscar attention could help director Martin Scorsese's big budget 3-D family movie add to its bottom line.
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," with only two Oscar nominations, expanded to more than 2,600 theaters last weekend. The 9/11 drama has grossed only $10.7 million, giving it plenty of opportunity to capitalize on its surprise best picture and supporting actor nominations.
Less likely to get a box office boost is "War Horse," which got six nominations, including best picture. The World War I epic debuted at more than 2,000 theaters over Christmas weekend and has already taken in $72.3 million.