Oscar Box Office: 'American Sniper,' 'Imitation Game,' 'Selma' Poised for Bump

Sniper Selma Imitation - H 2014

Sniper Selma Imitation - H 2014

To date, 'Grand Budapest Hotel' sports the top U.S. gross of any best-picture nominee — then again, it was released in March

A handful of films landing Oscar nominations for best picture could enjoy a notable box office boost.

Clint Eastwood's American Sniper waited until this weekend to expand nationwide after a limited Christmas run, and the gamble by Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow paid off. The movie was already expected to do huge business over the long Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, but scoring the top nomination could broaden its appeal even more.

In terms of overall box office standing, Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel has earned the most domestically of any best picture contender, with $59.1 million in domestic box office earnings. However, American Sniper should soon overtake it. Last year's crop included several big earners at the time of nominations. Gravity had grossed nearly $260 million domestically, while Captain Phillips and American Hustle had each crossed $100 million. However, all three were big studio movies, whereas this year, Sniper and Selma are the only studio titles nominated for the top Academy Award, and both are very early in their runs.

American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper as the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, is expected to earn $45 million to $50 million over the four-day weekend, the biggest nationwide start of Eastwood's career as a director. Eastwood wasn't nominated for best director, although it is really the best picture category that counts the most when it comes to a box office bump.

Sniper is one of eight films up for the most coveted Oscar of all. Like Sniper, The Imitation Game and Selma could benefit at the box office in the wake of the nominations; many of the other films have been out for months. Selma, from Ava DuVernay (she was also snubbed in the director's category), is only in its second weekend in nationwide release, earning roughly $16 million to date for Paramount.

Harvey Weinstein's team are masters at using the awards calendar to exploit a movie's box office performance, and Imitation Game is yet another example. The British biopic, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as WWII cryptographer Alan Turing, opened Nov. 28 in four runs, but held back from expanding nationwide until Christmas, meaning it should have plenty of life left at the box office. The drama has already earned a stellar $40 million in the U.S., despite only playing in roughly 1,500 theaters (it will make another major expansion later this month), and could ultimately earn north of $100 million.

Among other Oscar contenders, Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman tied with Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel for the most nominations, or nine (Imitation Game followed with eight), and has a strong shot of adding to its current earnings of $26.5 million at the box office, even though it was released in October. One box office observer suggests it could gross another $10 million to $15 million.

Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, arguably the most indie of the best picture contenders and still in select theaters also has a shot at growing its grosses to some degree, since it has never expanded nationwide. Opening in October in limited runs, Whiplash has grossed $6.1 million to date for Sony Pictures Classics. SPC also hopes that Foxcatcher will see a bump after earning several Oscar noms in other top categories, including Bennett Miller for director and Steve Carell for best actor. The drama also has held back from expanding nationwide, grossing $8.7 million to date.

Grand Budapest — released in theaters in March and widely available on home entertainment platforms — has little chance of adding much to its domestic box office earnings. Fox Searchlight, also home of Birdman, is reopening Grand Budapest in select theaters, but rereleases don't usually generate notable grosses.

Richard Linklater's Boyhood, opening in July, is still playing in a few theaters, but won't likely do much more business theatrically. However, Oscar noms, as well as its Golden Globe win, should boost DVD sales (it comes out Friday). Boyhood, from IFC Films, has grossed $24.3 million to date domestically.

Best picture contender Theory of Everything, from director James Marsh, has also pretty much run its course in theaters, earning $26.1 million to date since its early November debut. The Focus Features release expanded more quickly than fellow contenders Birdman or Whiplash.