Best picture hopefuls face chilly boxoffice

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A strange thing happened this fall at the boxoffice: Somehow, a whole bevy of awards front-runners slipped, stumbled or fell entirely off the radar.

This has created a vexing matter for the 80th Academy Awards, where the leading contenders for best picture could well be movies that hardly anyone has seen.

"It's like panic in the streets -- we've never seen this before, where they all don't work," says Mark Gill, CEO of the Film Department and former president of Warner Independent Pictures. "There are always two or three that come through, that work really well. And if the best you can hope for is moderate success -- which is where we are right now -- that's pretty grim."

A slew of year-end prestige films are still waiting to be released -- such as Mike Nichols' "Charlie Wilson's War" (Dec. 25, Universal), Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" (also Dec. 25, Paramount Vantage), Joe Wright's "Atonement" (Friday, Focus Features) and Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd" (Dec. 21, Paramount/DreamWorks) -- but, failing their ability to transform the race, this season is proving a bleak time for adult-oriented movies at the domestic boxoffice.

"The train wreck of the past month and a half has been brutal," says James Schamus, president of Focus Features, speaking in late October. "None of us can indulge too much in schadenfreude. We are all trying to pick ourselves off the floor. But we still have a lot of time to go to see how this shakes out."

Schamus has had his own share of financial disappointments recently, despite stellar reviews for Focus' films and solid revenues overseas that have made the division profitable. Not counting "Atonement," four of his company's five major films -- David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises," Terry George's "Reservation Road," Kasi Lemmons' "Talk to Me" and Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" -- have failed to register with mainstream audiences.

Nor has Paramount Vantage fared much better. Three of its awards contenders -- "Into the Wild," "Margot at the Wedding" and "A Mighty Heart" -- have done less business than insiders had predicted.

Vantage is hoping that two much-touted releases will compensate for this: "There Will Be Blood," which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as a Texas oilman, and Marc Forster's "The Kite Runner" (Dec. 14, Paramount Classics/DreamWorks). Both are getting strong word of mouth in anticipation of their debuts.

A third leading specialty label, Fox Searchlight, made a profit from its awards-oriented releases earlier this year, but none became the kind of breakout success of past indie hits like last year's best picture nominee "Little Miss Sunshine."

"Once," adored by many in the industry, has earned $9.4 million since its May 16 opening -- terrific in relation to the $150,000 it cost to make, but still minuscule compared to "Sunshine's" domestic intake of $59.9 million. The shoestring-budget "Waitress" also did well with $19.1 million, but did not cross over to become a mainstream hit.

Among Searchlight's other awards-oriented releases, Mira Nair's adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, "The Namesake," brought in $13.6 million, and Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" had earned a disappointing $10.9 million by press time, after opening in late September. Searchlight had not released "The Savages" by press time, and its comedy "Juno," set to open today, is drawing a powerful response from critics and industry insiders.

Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" has also won over critics -- not least in Cannes, where it won the director's prize -- but French-language films have hardly ever become blockbusters. Among its other awards entries, "Gone Baby Gone" has earned a decent $11.2 million. Another major Miramax contender, the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men," opened well on Nov. 9 and has earned a respectable $16.9 million at press time.

The overall weakness of the specialty releases has something to do with the crowded marketplace -- what Schamus calls "a traffic jam."

"For better or worse, the marketplace has not allowed us those opportunities to break out, because it's so crowded," he says.

Along with the specialty divisions, the majors have had mixed results with awards hopefuls. Universal's "American Gangster" has done well, but New Line's "Rendition" and "Love in the Time of Cholera" have barely registered.

"Gangster," helmed by previous Oscar nominee Ridley Scott and starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, has bucked the trend with a monster $43 million opening and more than $110 million in domestic earnings at press time. Still, several weeks into awards season, the overall boxoffice for more mature films is looking bleak.

It would be comforting to think this was a one-off occurrence. In fact, the tepid returns reflect a trend over the past few years: Oscar's and the public's favorites are growing ever further apart.

"The industry increasingly has focused its attention on the megawide release," says Gill. "And those films are less likely to be Academy Award winners. The industry has grown this other head, the megamovie, which didn't use to exist."

The last blockbuster to capture the best picture Oscar was New Line's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," released in December 2001. Last year's big winner, "The Departed," was a financial success, earning $132 million domestically. But that pales beside the $313.9 million earned by "Fellowship," let alone the $601 million following the release of "Titanic" in 1997.

Even the boxoffice of last year's art house contenders dwarfs that of this season's performers, at least those released by press time. The five films nominated for best picture at the 79th Oscars ("Babel," "The Departed," "The Queen," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Letters From Iwo Jima") collectively earned $297 million, an average of $59.4 million. It is hard to imagine this year's front-runners will earn anything like that.

Even with George Clooney toplining, Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton" -- arguably the most mainstream of this year's leading contenders to date -- opened wide to a weak $10.4 million and had earned only $38 million by press time. That baffles insiders, given the high praise from critics and a bankable star.

"'Michael Clayton' is a really well-made movie, and it is getting the respect of sophisticated audiences, as well as potentially the Academy," says David Dinerstein, president of worldwide marketing and distribution for Lakeshore Entertainment. "But what's happened with that is what's happening to a slew of films in the marketplace: Many are being affected by overcrowding."

Poor reviews hurt "Lions for Lambs," the first United Artists release since the studio was placed under the control of Tom Cruise and his partner, Paula Wagner -- and a picture that had "Oscar" written all over it. It has grossed only $13.9 million domestically at press time.

Warner Independent Pictures' "In the Valley of Elah," another leading awards entry, also failed to connect with audiences. The first film from Paul Haggis since he won the best picture Oscar for 2005's "Crash" had taken in only $6.7 million by press time, following its Sept. 14 release.

Boxoffice performance and artistry are not linked, of course. But ratings for the Academy Awards telecast often suffer without big hits among the major nominees.

The Academy earns the bulk of its revenue from its deal with ABC. Its Oscar earnings totaled $70.2 million in 2007 (up from $67 million in 2006). While ABC's payment each year is not based on ratings (there is no bonus if the Oscar telecast does well and no deduction if it does badly), those ratings will be analyzed closely when the network enters talks to renew the pact after it expires in 2014.
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