Box Office Preview: 'Shame,' Oscar Contenders Jockey for Position as Awards Season Heats Up

Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Fox Searchlight drama hopes to overcome the stigma associated with the NC-17 rating; so far, Cinemark is the only exhibitor refusing to play the Michael Fassbender film.

In a lull before the Christmas storm, there are no wide releases opening at the domestic box office this weekend. Instead, the focus will be on awards contenders.

The weekend after Thanksgiving is famous for being one of the quietest sessions of the year for new studio fare. Conversely, the specialty box office usually lights up as award hopefuls enter the marketplace, or expand their runs.

There's an added twist this year: Sony Pictures Classics is re-releasing Woody Allen's box office hit Midnight in Paris this weekend in 305 theaters. The film is Allen's highest grossing movie to date, earning $55.7 million domestically and $79.6 million internationally.

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"We wanted to make one last play before the movie comes out on DVD on Dec. 20. We felt that a lot of people would like to see it one more time," says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard.

Fox Searchlight will test the limits of the NC-17 rating both at the box office and among awards voters when opening Steve McQueen's Shame -- featuring Michael Fassbender as a desolate sex addict--in nine theaters in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Searchlight insiders say only one exhibitor, Cinemark, is refusing to play Shame, also starring Carey Mulligan. That's not a surprise, since Cinemark likewise refused to carry Ang Lee's 2007 Lust, Caution, also rated NC-17.

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Shame has ambitious awards aspirations, with Fassbender winning the top acting prize at the Venice Film Festival in September. And on Thursday, Shame was listed among the year's top 10 independent films by the National Board of Review.

This week, awards season began to take shape in earnest as the season's first key awards and nominations were announced, capped by the NBR, which named Martin Scorsese's Hugo best film of the year. Scorsese also won best director.

Paramount, which is distributing Hugo for GK Films, hopes to parlay the top honors into increased interest at the box office. This weekend, Hugo makes a major push when upping its theater count from roughly 1,200 to 1,800. Paramount intentionally held back when opening Hugo on Nov. 23 so as to take advantage of awards attention throughout December.

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Through Wednesday, Hugo's domestic gross was $17 million. Box office observers believe the pic will gross $6 million to $8 million this weekend, which could put it at No. 3 behind The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and The Muppets.

Fox Searchlight's George Clooney starrer The Descendants, which also scored top NBR honors in addition to key Independent Spirit Award nominations, moves into an additional 141 theaters this weekend for a total theater count of 574. The film, directed by Alexander Payne, has grossed a stellar $12.4 million since opening Nov. 16 in select theaters.

Two other specialty films to watch: The Artist and Michelle Williams starrer My Week with Marilyn, both from the Weinstein Co. The Artist, debuting last Friday in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles, moves into two theaters in San Francisco. The black-and-white silent film nabbed one of the top openings of the year for a limited release, and also garnered top Independent Spirit Award nominations.

The Artist also scored big this week with the New York Film Critics Circle, which named it best picture, as well as naming French helmer Michel Hazanavicius best director.

In terms of which film will win the box office race overall, Disney's Muppets and Summit's Breaking Dawn could potentially find themselves in a contest for the No. 1 spot, with weekend grosses in the $13 million to $15 million range. Muppets, already considered a victory for Disney, opened on Nov. 23 and has grossed $44.4 million through Wednesday domestically. Breaking Dawn's domestic gross through Wednesday was $228.2 million.

The fate of Sony's Arthur Christmas, which opened opposite Muppets on Nov. 23, is less certain, although the studio believes the pic will have strong legs because of its holiday theme. Through Wednesday, the movie's domestic gross was $17.6 million. For the weekend, conservative estimates show it grossing $5 million to $6 million.