Oscar Impact: Artist, The–Film’s Box-Office

Can Harvey Weinstein turn this year’s best picture Oscar winner, The Artist, into a blockbuster, considering that the film is black-and-white, silent and so far hasn’t played beyond the sophisticated-urban markets?

The Weinstein Co. is betting that the film can cross over to more general audiences. On March 2, TWC will increase the movie’s screens from 965 locations to 2,000. Weinstein has suggested “The Artist” could even double its domestic gross, which stood at $31.8 million as of February 28.

Others are skeptical, with the consensus being that the movie will possibly end up in the $45 million range. “I think to get to even $30 million for this film is genius, but if Harvey thinks it will double its gross, it’s not going to happen,” says one office observer.

Weinstein is no novice in this arena. Last year, his The King’s Speech racked up $24.6 million more in domestic grosses following its best picture win. But the Colin Firth drama already was a mainstream hit, ultimately grossing $138.2 million in the U.S.

The fabled Oscar box-office bump applies mostly to the best picture winner, though The Descendants and Hugo hope to parlay their combined six wins into heightened DVD sales.

Hugo launched on DVD and Blu-ray on Feb. 28, two days after the Oscars, and Descendants will hit stores March 13.

TWC’s other big Oscar winner, The Iron Lady (best actress for Meryl Streep), might get a small bump but essentially is finished after grossing $25.7 million in the U.S. Best documentary winner Undefeated opened Feb. 17 in five theaters and has grossed just $70,195. TWC will add seven theaters on March 2.

After Oscar noms were announced in January, The Artist and The Descendants enjoyed the biggest box-office gains among the best picture contenders still in theaters. TWC timed its entire release strategy to important awards dates. At the time of nominations, the movie had earned only $12.1 million domestically. Descendants, whose domestic cume was $51.3 million at the time of noms, now has taken in $78.5 million domestically. On the eve of the Academy Awards, Artist was playing in roughly 165 markets across the country. When it expands March 2, it will play in an additional 40 to 50. Artist‘s increased footprint means it will play in smaller towns (think Bakersfield), where the Oscar glitz could pay off.

“The plan was always to pull the trigger this weekend,” says Erik Lomis, president of distribution at TWC. Artist, which cost about $16 million to produce, will be profitable for its producers, including French production/finance outfit Wild Bunch. But for TWC — which swooped in before the Cannes Film Festival and bought distribution rights in the U.S. and other territories for a modest $3 million in exchange for distribution fees — the outcome depends on the movie’s domestic gross versus the hefty marketing spend. Insiders say the bill is $20 million, which includes theatrical marketing and its lavish awards campaign, but rivals put the number closer to $30 million.  (Fox Searchlight likely spent north of $30 million on Descendants, which has grossed a healthy $78.4 million overseas for a worldwide total of $156.9 million.)

The size of the distribution fees that Weinstein Co. is getting isn’t known, or whether the company has an actual piece of the movie.

Even as TWC spends big for awards, the company is putting itself on solid financial footing. Weinstein recently secured a $150 million film-finance fund with Union Bank of California to pay off its debt to Goldman Sachs and others and to make and release movies, and the company also scored a Netflix output deal. The moves are a far cry from 2009, when many were predicting TWC’s demise.

Overseas, Artist has grossed $51.1 million for a global total of $83 million through Feb. 28. The movie generated the most business in France, its home turf, earning nearly $19 million after opening in October. Sources say there’s talk that Warner, which distributed the film in France, will rerelease the movie there. After France, The Artist has done the most business in the U.K., earning $11.7 million for TWC and its foreign distribution partner. Outside of Europe and Australia, however, it has done limited business, and box-office observers don’t expect it to gross more than $60 million internationally. That pales in comparison to the $275.4 million earned overseas by King’s Speech or the $236.6 million grossed internationally by 2008 best picture winner Slumdog Millionaire.

The Artist already has bested another niche best picture winner, 2009’s The Hurt Locker, which grossed $16.5 million domestically. But whether a silent film can make much more noise at the box office remains a challenge for even Harvey Weinstein.