Studios Delay Overseas Releases to Maximize Oscar Nom Boost

Japanese Key Art for "Black Swan"

Major films such as '127 Hours,' 'True Grit' and 'The King's Speech' were held back from international release until after nominations.

Oscar has become a globetrotter.

More and more, the famous box-office bump that Academy nominations can bring a film in the U.S. is reflected in a movie’s international performance.

Pictures earning multiple nominations and eventual awards have started to see enormous returns overseas. Oscar provides a patina that’s hard to beat. Selling a Hollywood blockbuster to myriad cultures is one thing; promoting adult-skewing dramas is a far trickier task.

That’s why 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, The King’s Speech and True Grit held back from making a major international splash until after Oscar noms were announced Jan. 25. (Luckily for them, they all landed in the best picture category.)

Distributors hope for added riches this year, considering the amount of money many of the nominees (save for Hours) have already earned at the domestic box office as well as strong starts for Speech, Swan and Hours in friendly territories the U.K. and Australia/New Zealand.

“Nominations can give a film an incalculable boost worldwide. It’s a stamp of approval from the Academy, which is the gold standard,” says Christian Colson, Danny Boyle’s producing partner on Hours and 2009 best picture winner Slumdog Millionaire.

Slumdog is the most striking example, outpacing all expectations by grossing $236.6 million internationally. That film began its foreign rollout in earnest only after Academy nominations were revealed. Slumdog also enjoyed an Oscar boost domestically, grossing $141.3 million for a worldwide total of $377.9 million.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button also benefited handily from Academy love, going on to gross $206.4 million internationally after being nominated for best picture. That surpassed its $127.5 million domestic gross as Button, from Paramount and Warner Bros., amassed a worldwide total of $333.9 million.

This awards season, Paramount borrowed a page from its Button playbook when designing the international-release plan for the Coen brothers’ Grit, which is already a domestic box office hit, grossing north of $139 million.

On Jan. 26, Grit opened in Australia, its first overseas market. On Feb. 10, it opens the Berlin International Film Festival before bowing the next day in several key territories including the U.K., Germany and Brazil.

Paramount vice chair Rob Moore says the Oscars are now a “global event” that have a direct impact on the choices international moviegoers make. “Having this acknowledgment certainly affects the profile of a film internationally,” he says.

Westerns aren’t an easy sell overseas, but Ethan and Joel Coen have a strong following offshore. Paramount will heavily promote the brothers, along with the film’s action. That, combined with the Oscar noms and Berlin stopover, should whip up strong interest — or so Paramount hopes.

On paper, Speech is even narrower in its appeal, being a historical drama about the British monarchy. But its nomination sweep and early box-office run could help marketability as it moves into countries with no built-in reverence for the crown.

Speech has already grossed nearly $58 million domestically for the Weinstein Co., and the film could see a big boost when it expands from about 1,600 theaters to 2,000-plus Jan. 28.

Overseas, Australian production company See-Saw sold off foreign rights to Speech, including to U.K. partner Momentum. Opening in the U.K. on Jan. 7, Speech has earned a brilliant $26.2 million, well ahead of the totals earned by fellow British films The Queen ($14.2 million) and Atonement ($18.5 million).

Speech also has opened in Australia and New Zealand, where it has grossed more than $15 million for co-distributors Paramount and Transmission. The pic has grossed north of $100 million worldwide so far.

Speech has been soft is Spain, where it opened several weeks ago. But a veteran international studio exec predicts the Oscar nominations will help the film in Spain and other non-English-language countries where it now begins opening.

“They will get a big bump,” the exec says. “If you looked at the headlines around the world after the nominations were announced, it was all about 12 nominations for King’s Speech and 10 for True Grit.”

The Queen was certainly helped. That film cleaned up in countries including Brazil, Germany, Japan and Sweden after Oscar noms and Helen Mirren’s subsequent best actress win.

20th Century Fox International has two best picture Oscar contenders to unfurl on behalf of Fox Searchlight: Swan and Hours (Swan opened to big numbers during the Jan. 21-23 weekend in the U.K. and Australia). Fox has held off a major international launch for both until after the noms, as it did with Juno and Little Miss Sunshine.

Searchlight itself isn’t distributing Hours in France or the U.K., where it has already grossed $9.2 million — nearly matching the film’s $11 million domestic cume to date.

But Fox knows Hours remains a tough sell, regardless of its one-off success in Britain, and is banking on the Oscar nom to help moviegoers in other countries get over their squeamishness. The studio will rely heavily on the international recognition Boyle earned from Slumdog, including in India, where that film was set and did a hearty $7.4 million after its nominations and best picture win. Hours opens in India on Jan. 28.

As distributors are learning, if today it’s Oscar, then tomorrow it’s the world.           

BEST PICTURE HOPEFULS TAKE ON THE WORLD: A sampling of key international release dates, timed to Oscar nominations

127 Hours

  • India, Jan. 28
  • Spain, Feb. 4
  • Argentina, Feb. 10

Black Swan

  • Chile, Jan. 27
  • Brazil, Feb. 4
  • France, Feb. 9
  • Russia, Feb. 17

The Fighter

  • U.K., Feb. 2
  • Brazil, Feb. 4
  • Spain, Feb. 4
  • Russia, Feb. 10

The King’s Speech

  • France, Feb. 2
  • Brazil, Feb. 17
  • Germany, Feb. 17

True Grit

  • Australia, Jan. 26*
  • Berlin Film Festival, Feb. 10
  • U.K., Feb. 11
  • Brazil, Feb. 11
  • Japan, Feb. 26

* First international market to open

MOVIES THAT BENEFITTED FROM A NOM: International audiences embraced
these films after their Oscar attention

Slumdog Millionaire
Domestic: $141.3 M
International: $236.6 M
Worldwide: $377.9 M

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Domestic: $127.5 M
International: $206.4 M
Worldwide: $333.9

Domestic: $143.5 M
International: 87.9 M
Worldwide: $231.4 M

Little Miss Sunshine
Domestic: $59.9 M
International: $40.6 M
Worldwide: $100.5 M