As awards season kicks into high gear this month, certain films that aren't "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" should see box-office gains from conversations about and nominations for the best pictures and acting performances of 2015. Benefiting the most will be a number of independent films with initial limited releases that found themselves well reviewed by critics and well received by their small and influential audiences.
"There are definitely films out there of the specialty nature that are gaining traction through this season," said Frank Rodriguez, Fox Searchlight's head of distribution.
Recognition at the Golden Globes on Jan. 10 will certainly help, but the biggest buzz will come Jan. 14, when the film academy announces its nominations. If any of these movies are recognized, studios will take advantage of the awards attention by expanding them on a larger scale.
Last year's best picture winner, "Birdman," for instance, had made $24.6 million by the end of 2014 after opening in a limited run of just four theaters in October and expanding to a high of 738 in early December. The week after it received nine Oscar nominations, "Birdman" played in more than twice the number of theaters it was in the week before and more than doubled its weekly gross. It went on to make $42.3 million domestically by the end of its theatrical run in mid-April 2015 and was the most profitable of last year's major Oscar winners.
The small pictures in the discussion this year fall into two camps: films that came out before the holidays in limited release and by Christmas had already gone wide and retreated, and movies released during the holiday season, which in 2015 was overtaken by "Star Wars."
In the first camp are Open Road's "Spotlight," Fox's "Brooklyn" and Bleecker Street's "Trumbo." Leading the lot, grossing more than $27 million in the U.S. and Canada, is the Tom McCarthy-directed "Spotlight," about the Boston Globe's 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of sexual abuse by priests. Since its Nov. 6 release in five theaters, the film has not only found its audience but it has also played well with it — evidenced by countless honors, including nominations for two Screen Actors Guild Awards and three Golden Globes.
Box office wise, the film is ahead of where "Birdman" and "The Theory of Everything" (2015's top two highest-grossing Oscar movies) were at this time last year. According to Open Road chief marketing officer Jason Cassidy, "Spotlight" was screening at 1,000 locations at its height but has since dropped to below 400. If "Spotlight" garners recognition from the film academy, it will be expanded into more theaters again, Cassidy said, though a set number hasn't yet been decided.
"Brooklyn" has also fared well, pulling in more than $20 million since its Nov. 4 release in five theaters. Starring Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant landing in 1950s Brooklyn, the film topped out at about 950 locations but currently rests at 285. Though well reviewed and well received — with Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations for Ronan — the picture, like others, has battled the overcrowded holiday season but has found its audience.
"What happens is you try your hardest to hold pictures in as many theaters as you can," said Rodriguez. "But it's a bit easier when you have a film like 'Brooklyn' by the fact that audiences are finding the film [regardless of the big blockbusters]."
In the group of late 2015 arrivals are Sundance Selects' "45 Years," the Weinstein Co.'s "Carol," Fox's "Youth" and A24's "Room," all of which are taking a calculated approach to capitalize on awards season buzz. Describing what to expect with "45 Years," which opened Christmas weekend in three theaters, was Jonathan Sehring, president of Sundance Selects/IFC Films.
"We're not going to spend the same amount as Hollywood studios who chase [nominations] rigorously," he said. "We know what the benefits of academy nominations are, and this movie would benefit from it, but we also know it will play very well throughout award season and beyond [without it]. We are trying to be strategic and take advantage of great critical acclaim and word of mouth."
As such, the picture starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay will have a "slow platform release" that will continue Friday and increase during the following weeks. The film has pulled in more than $141,000.
The Weinstein Co's strategy for "Carol" is slightly different, having opened the film Nov. 20, but it's also taking a more measured approach in line with awards nominations. After the movie's positive reception at Cannes, the studio began mirroring the distribution plan it used with 2010's "The King's Speech" and 2011's "The Artist," both best picture Oscar winners.
"Carol" has grossed about $5 million since its debut in four theaters and its expansion onto 189 screens. With SAG Award nominations for stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and five Golden Globe nods for the film overall, Weinstein will add 400 to 500 theaters Friday and again the week of Oscar nominations.
A24 has a similar plan for "Room," which has three Golden Globe and two SAG Award nominations. Though the film opened Oct. 16 in four theaters, since grossing an estimated $5 million, it has remained in fewer than 200 with plans for wider release after Academy Award nominations — whether the picture gets any or not.
"This has been our plan all along, to go early with a movie that gets incredible critical acclaim and word of mouth and let that play out," said Heath Shapiro, the studio's head of distribution and marketing. "Getting ahead of things like the holiday movie crush and letting word of mouth really percolate is benefiting the film tremendously."
Despite each studio's varying approach to handling awards buzz, just how well these films will do, both with Oscar nominations and at the box office, has yet to be seen. But if history is any indication, one of these limited-release independent films could just be 2016's best picture winner.