After a somber showing for most of the year, there were finally signs of a real rebound at the box office for awards fare. MGM/United Artists’ Licorice Pizza secured a pandemic-era best opening per-theater average over Thanksgiving, while its House of Gucci sewed up nice numbers despite being an adult drama. Even 20th Century/Disney remained cautiously optimistic that December’s West Side Story could overcome a poor start ($32.2 million domestic as of Jan. 9) and stay in theaters long enough to see a boost from potential Oscar nominations.

Distributors — particularly smaller indie outfits — have for years relied on the box office bump that begins with Oscar noms and lasts through the Academy Awards telecast. But now hopes for that are fading, thanks to the massively infectious omicron variant and the already challenged awards season.

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With the absence of the Golden Globes telecast (the beleaguered HFPA announced its winners in a Jan. 9 private ceremony), lost was the worldwide exposure from a memorable acceptance speech that would mark a turning point in campaigning, as the ceremony typically happens days before the Oscar noms are announced. But this year, those noms won’t be revealed until Feb. 8, an agonizingly long time for movies trying to stay in theaters long enough to take part in any bounty.

In October 2019, Neon opened Bong Joon Ho’s eventual best picture winner, Parasite, in a smattering of theaters across the U.S. It held steady in about 300 until it was nominated for six Oscars, including best picture and best director, on Jan. 13, 2020. The South Korean psychological thriller had earned $25.4 million before the noms; it racked up another $35.6 million en route to $263 million worldwide after collecting four Oscars on March 11. In the U.S., Parasite never would have been able to grow its theater count to 2,000 locations without those accolades.

The year before, best picture victor Green Book opened over Thanksgiving and earned 50 percent of its domestic haul, or $85.1 million, after the noms in mid-January and its Oscar wins in late February.

“It’s like holding a potentially winning lottery ticket,” says Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. But is the ticket lost for good in the reconfigured landscape? “There is no more equating nominations with box office gain,” laments one studio awards insider.

Considering the persistent pandemic, awards voters are likely to forgive a movie that hasn’t taken off at the box office, but that isn’t stopping distributors from feeling glum. The awards attention can be the best form of advertising in terms of reaching the average moviegoer.

Contenders still playing exclusively in theaters that could see the biggest boost include West Side Story, Sony Pictures Classics’ Parallel Mothers and two titles from MGM/UA: Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci and Joe Wright’s musical drama Cyrano. There’s also the indie darling Drive My Car, the Japanese drama directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi.

On Jan. 6, MGM and Universal International, which has Cyrano overseas, delayed that film’s U.K. release 11 days to Jan. 25 because of omicron. As of now, plans for the film’s U.S. release in select theaters on Jan. 28, to be followed by an expansion, remain. “We will keep adjusting so that we find our sweet spot,” says Erik Lomis, president of distribution at UA, which is handling Cyrano, House of Gucci and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. Anderson’s quirky 1970s period piece is playing in fewer than 800 theaters and may not boost its location count until the Oscar noms are announced. The specialty film has earned $8.2 million to date, while House of Gucci — which had a wide release — is at nearly $50.1 million domestic.

Oscar contenders already available at home via premium VOD include Focus Features’ Belfast and A24’s C’mon C’mon. A slew of other movies are from streamers, including The Power of the Dog, Don’t Look Up, Tick, Tick … Boom!, The Lost Daughter and The Hand of God from Netflix; Being the Ricardos from Amazon Studios; and CODA and (in partnership with A24) The Tragedy of Macbeth from Apple.

While streamers don’t have to worry about a depressed box office, they also don’t get to savor the burst of awareness that a theatrical hit can bring as moviegoers emerge from the pandemic and take in an Oscar contender on the big screen.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Hollywood Reporter Original Article