From lonely darkness of a few theaters, this year's hits

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Last year, New Line Cinema's blockbuster "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" was playing in 2,558 theaters on the day it received 11 Oscar nominations.

This year, "Vera Drake," a movie put out by New Line's corporate sibling, unexpectedly garnered three major nominations and can be seen on a grand total of ... 41. (If you wanted to see it Tuesday in the Los Angeles area, your only option was the Academy in Pasadena.)

Mike Leigh's $9-million movie — the tale of a sweet-natured backstreet abortionist in 1950s England — is part of a robust crop of art-house, off-center and in some cases little-seen or hard-to-find films playing a major role in this season's Oscar nominations.

"Hotel Rwanda," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Maria Full of Grace" figure prominently in the acting categories. Miramax Films' "Finding Neverland" and Fox Searchlight's "Sideways" drew best picture nominations, along with Warner Bros.' "Million Dollar Baby," which even now is playing on only 147 screens. In fact, of the five best picture nominees, only "The Aviator" and "Ray" were featured at their peak in more than 2,000 theaters.

"Drake," recognized with directing and screenplay nominations for Leigh and a best actress nod for Imelda Staunton, is one of the more obscure of the lot. "This film is really under the radar," said Leigh by phone from London. "It's the wooden horse of Troy sneaking into the city. Our movie is a genuine independent. No one interfered with me. There was no formula to make it a 'Hollywood' film. Already we've broken out of the art-house circuit, and this should help us to do more."

Riding its newfound public awareness, Fine Line Features will increase the number of theaters slightly, to 55, on Friday, though still only in the country's major metropolitan areas.

Leigh said he also expected the film's Oscar nominations to help "Vera Drake" kindle public debate over abortion.

"The higher profile should also make it a hotter picture in terms of the [abortion] controversy," Leigh said.

Even before the Oscar nominations, the film was on the abortion rights circuit, with Fine Line scheduling screenings for groups such as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. It plans to continue the push with a Washington, D.C., screening and discussion next month.

Marian Koltai-Levine, Fine Line's executive vice president of marketing, said the film has not yet drawn widespread opposition.

"The pro-life groups really haven't taken us on," she said. "Maybe because the film walks both sides of the line. Vera is punished for her deeds, so it's less of a rallying point. Another factor might be the 'doth protest too much' argument. Downplaying the movie downplays the attention. That's a lesson we all learned from 'The Passion of the Christ.' "

In the wake of the nominations, Fine Line plans to bring back its TV ad campaign on channels such as Lifetime and Bravo, and CNN and other news outlets — exposure that could also make it a broader target for criticism.

For her part, Staunton said she never expected that the role would lead to her first best actress Oscar nomination.

"I thought I'd be squeezed out by the big girls — and because of the subject matter of the film," she said by telephone from London. "We're up against huge films with so much money behind them. You wonder if [the academy members will] watch yours. This is proof that they do."

"Vera Drake" is not the only film moving swiftly to capitalize on its Oscar nomination success. Miramax Films plans to boost its "Finding Neverland" from 869 screens to more than 1,200 on Friday.

"The picture is doing solid business in middle-to-upscale areas, but it hasn't broadened out to the general populace," said Mike Rudnitsky, senior executive vice president of domestic distribution for the company. "There's an untapped audience we hope to reach."

As for Miramax Films' other contender, "The Aviator," "we plan to add 700 screens, upping the number to 2,500, going as wide as possible. With 11 nominations and all that hype, lining up theaters shouldn't be too difficult, despite the competition. We hope to reach a younger audience, some of those DiCaprio fans."

"Sideways," the story of a road trip in California's Central Coast wine country, will expand from 696 locations to more than 1,700, many of them mainstream suburban multiplexes.

"It's very unusual for a little movie to go this wide and get this kind of recognition," said Steve Gilula, Fox Searchlight's president of distribution. "I feel like we're David going up versus four Goliaths. We've taken in $32 million so far, and, with the nominations, we could easily double that."

"Hotel Rwanda," which drew a best actor nomination for Don Cheadle, a supporting actress nod for Sophie Okonedo and an original screenplay nomination, will be in 417 theaters this Friday, up from 319. Next week, United Artists aims to have the picture in 750 to 800 theaters.

"This movie deserves to be seen by the masses — in a mix of commercial theaters and specialized," said Erik Lomis, president of distribution for MGM and United Artists.

"Being Julia," a Sony Pictures Classics release, will expand to as many as 500 screens in the wake of a best actress nomination for Annette Bening. And "Ray," Taylor Hackford's cinematic portrait of music legend Ray Charles, is upping the number of theaters from 293 to 503 on Friday. The movie also will be released on DVD on Feb. 1.

The release strategy for "Million Dollar Baby," a relationship movie about a boxer (Hilary Swank) and her wizened coach (Clint Eastwood), was by all accounts a savvy one. It opened on eight screens on Dec. 17, and this Friday it will expand to more than 1,800 locations on the heels of the Oscar news. "We thought we'd let word of mouth drive it — and now we're ready to go," Warner's distribution chief, Dan Fellman, said.

Still, nominations are one thing, Academy Awards another, notes former Universal Studio chief Tom Pollock. "It's the winning that makes the biggest difference commercially," he said. "Tune in next month."

Times staff writer R. Kinsey Lowe contributed to this report.

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