Hollywood’s Early 2014 Oscar Gains Mask Looming Challenge

Fresh off the most-watched Oscars show in a decade, Hollywood is looking to build on its fast start to 2014. It won’t be easy.

Walt Disney Co.’s Oscar-winning animated film “Frozen” and Sony Corp.’s best-picture nominee “American Hustle” have contributed to a 9.7 percent gain in domestic box-office sales to $1.68 billion this year, according to data from Rentrak Corp.

Keeping it up will hinge partly on releases in the next few weeks, including Disney’s newest “Captain America” film and animated features from 21st Century Fox Inc. and DreamWorks SKG Animation Inc. Success now will give studios momentum ahead of the summer movie season, which generated record revenue last year. That could help Hollywood and the cinema chains beat the 2013 all-time high of $10.9 billion in annual sales.

“It is important to have this good start to the year as there are likely to be challenges ahead,” said Phil Contrino, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com. “2013 was a record-setting year, so it will be tough to match that in 2014.”

The good news is that two months into the year, nominees and winners from Hollywood’s annual awards season are contributing to a healthy 2014.

Three of the six top-grossing movies this year won or were nominated for Oscars, according to researcher Box Office Mojo. They’ve generated $278 million in domestic ticket sales since Jan. 1, or about 17 percent of the U.S. total.

While most films do the bulk of their business in the first weeks, Oscar nominees, like Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” sell tickets long after they open.

Publicity Machine

Awards contenders stay in front of fans thanks to a drumbeat of publicity from show organizers, starting with Golden Globe nominations in mid-December and lasting until the Academy Awards. This week’s Oscar telecast, on Disney’s ABC TV, attracted a U.S. audience of 43 million viewers, the most in a decade, according to the network.

Two films that made their debut this year are also contributing to the 2014 gains. “The Lego Movie,” which opened in February, is the top-grossing film of the year, with $209 million in domestic ticket sales and $330.4 million worldwide for Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros. studio. The buddy cop comedy “Ride Along,” featuring Kevin Hart, has taken in $127 million in the U.S. for Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures.

“It shows that the studios don’t have to crowd all their big films in the holidays or summer months,” Contrino said.

The success of those two films has made it tougher for awards contenders to shine in box-office rankings this year. Last year, just one new release had topped $100 million in sales as of March 3, allowing four best-picture nominees into the top six for domestic sales.

April Showers

Studios have more potential blockbusters lined up before the calendar gets busy with summer films in May. This weekend, DreamWorks Animation and 21st Century Fox release “Mr. Peabody & Sherman.” Boxoffice.com forecasts $98 million in domestic revenue for the picture in its full domestic theatrical run.

Disney’s Marvel division delivers “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” on April 4, and on April 11, Fox releases “Rio 2,” the sequel to the animated picture about parrots featuring the voices of Anne Hathaway and Jamie Foxx. The original generated worldwide sales of $485 million in 2011.

In the meantime, studios will try to get the most out of the lingering interest in awards.

“12 Years a Slave,” the best-picture winner, probably has the most to gain from this week’s telecast, according to Contrino. The film went into the Oscars with about $50 million in U.S. revenue since October. Its tough subject matter, an unflinching portrayal of free black man sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War south, may have have put off moviegoers.

More Theaters

“It is by no means an easy movie to see, but because of the importance now attached to it by getting this top prize, that will push a lot more people to see it,” said Contrino, who expects the distributor, 21st Century Fox Inc., to expand the film from its current 411 theaters.

“Frozen,” which won Oscars for best animated feature and best original song, has earned almost a third of its $388.7 million in U.S. ticket sales this year, according to Box Office Mojo. The film opened in November, and with a worldwide total exceeding $1 billion, “Frozen” ranks as the second biggest animated film of all time.

The writers of the Oscar-winning song “Let It Go,” the husband-wife team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, sang a jingle in their acceptance speech calling on Disney to authorize a sequel.

‘Frozen’ Sequel

Disney, based in Burbank, California, hasn’t said whether it will make a “Frozen” sequel. An second Lego movie from Warner Bros. is listed on the release schedule at Box Office Mojo for May 26, 2017.

Sony kicks off the summer season with “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” on May 2. That’s followed by “Godzilla,” distributed by Warner Bros., on May 16, according to Box Office Mojo. Last year’s summer sales totaled a record $4.71 billion, according to Hollywood.com.

Gerry Lopez, chief executive officer of the second largest U.S. cinema chain, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., credits this year’s crop of award nominees with giving the box office a needed boost, especially when the harsh winter led to frequent theater closings.

“What this Oscar slate has done, it has maintained the interest of people, even as we have had this horrible weather, demand has remained steady” Lopez said in an interview last week.

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