Nominated studios rake in ticket sales in Oscar run-up

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An Oscar-nomination brings more than prestige and recognition to a studio: It also brings cold, hard cash.

Over the past five years, movies nominated for Academy Awards have earned on average 25% of their U.S. total in the weeks between the nominations and the Oscar telecast, estimates trade paper Variety. That period, compressed to about four weeks before this year's Feb. 27 event, is when excitement is highest; one industry veteran compared it to a potentially winning lottery ticket. "It's a gift from God to the studio and its marketing executives," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., a box office tracking firm. "It's money in the bank."

Widening the distribution of Oscar-nominated films is just one way that studios will try to turn the accolades into more cash. They also are increasing their advertising, tweaking the campaigns for the films or their DVD releases to highlight the nominations. "It's not just about ego, it's about commerce," said Tony Angelotti, a longtime Oscar consultant to the studios. "The nominations build awareness, and that translates into a marketing hook."

That's especially true, Mr. Angelotti said, when there are lesser-known non-blockbuster films in the Oscar pool, as this year with "Sideways," "Finding Neverland," and "Million Dollar Baby." None of the Oscar best picture contenders come close to box office smashes like "Spider-Man 2" and "The Passion of the Christ," which both were nominated in ancillary categories like visual effects and cinematography.

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Nominated films are already adding screens. Even as it comes out on DVD this week, Universal's "Ray" is increasing the theater count from about 300 to more than 500. "Million Dollar Baby," which opened on a handful of screens in mid-December, hit 1,800 locations this past weekend, and "Sideways" went to 1,700 screens from about 700. "The Aviator," one of the widest-release movies in the crop, added 500 screens shortly after its 11 nominations, and "Finding Neverland" went from 800 theaters to 1,200.

There are a number of factors that determine if a movie will get a box-office bump from an Oscar nomination, among them the length of time the movie has been playing, its current competition and how widely it's distributed. A few cases in point from the past: New Line's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," already had pulled in $340 million before it was nominated for best picture. After the nomination, it brought in an additional $36 million, which might have happened anyway, Mr. Dergarabedian said. "American Beauty," on the other hand, had made about $70 million at the box office before its best picture nomination. It nearly doubled that figure, with much wider distribution, after the nomination.

Academy Award nominations help a studio brand itself and becomes a marker, in perpetuity, for the film. "That's a legacy for that movie for the rest of its life," Mr. Dergarabedian said. "It has a ripple effect all the way down the line."

Mr. Angelotti agreed, saying the economic benefits of an Oscar nomination are immediate and far-reaching, ranging from stars and directors who can demand more money overnight to increased box office, DVD, pay-per-view and TV sales. That's why studios-some famously, like Miramax-spend tens of millions of dollars chasing Oscar. Miramax, not so incidentally, racked up 20 nominations this year, more than any other distributor.

Studios also hire outside marketing and public relations consultants to help them craft consumer advertising and "for your consideration" campaigns aimed at voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The 77th Annual Academy Awards air Feb. 27 on ABC.

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