There can be no question that one of this year’s most anticipated films, Oscar-wise, flew high in its limited platform break at the box office this weekend. With an estimate exceeding $400,ooo at just four theatres in NY and LA, the $103,000-per-screen figure indicates strong want-to-see on the coasts. I had expected this totally unique and original film, with its orgiastic critical and Venice/Telluride/NY film fest response and general must-see status, would be huge on its first break. And since both NY and LA are full of industry players, that bodes well for the awards future of the film.

pete_hammond_300x100So how did it do with Oscar voters? Well, it also played a fifth cinema on Sunday, the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills, where it had its “official” Academy screening to a nearly packed auditorium of what is estimated by several attendees at about 90% capacity. Most told me the applause at the end was nice, not overwhelming though, and that there was knowing laughter during a few scenes. Of course if this crowd doesn’t get this very showbiz-centric movie — about a former superhero movie star trying to turn his life around in a Broadway play — then no one will. Some mentioned they were puzzled by the ending (the same thing heard at the Gone Girl Academy unveiling). Another said there was no real chatter in the ladies room afterwards, and “there usually is.” sq_birdmanCould be they were trying to figure out that ending?

At any rate, the good news for distributor Fox Searchlight is that much of that crowd stayed for the Q&A following the film with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, sure-fire Supporting Actor contender Edward Norton, and actress Andrea Riseborough.  That’s a good sign as it isn’t always the case ever since the fickle Academy voters started getting the Q&A treatment a couple of years ago. So in this instance, it’s not the attendance figure or even birdmanthe audible response, it’s that they didn’t bolt for the exits afterwards.

A rep for the film called the screening “a huge success” and on the surface it certainly seems that way for Searchlight which is celebrating a per-screen average for the film that is second only this year to another of its films, The Grand Budapest Hotel when it opened last March. As the months of new 2014 contenders dwindle to a precious two that early release is starting to build some real buzz in the Best Picture race according to my radar. It could be a sleeper, though it’s statistically fighting long odds for Fox as the last movie to get a Best Picture nomination that was released as early as March was Erin Brockovich at the turn of this century (OK, just 14 years ago, but it sounds more impressive the other way).

As for Birdman’s Oscar chances, opening on the exact same “good luck” weekend that Searchlight chose last year for its reigning Best Picture champ 12 Years A Slave, one Academy member there says it “should earn an easy six to eight nominations but it won’t win…it got nice applause but is no Chicago or Les Miz (which both drew heavy applause). They stayed through credits,  a sure sign they’re looking for names to nominate or consider, (but) it isn’t about anything other than AGAIN actors getting second chances,”15694042-standard they said.

“Actors getting second chances”? Hmmm. That could be a strong enticement for the Academy’s largest branch (by far), who have a very big say at this track. At this point noms seem likely for Picture, Director, Screenplay, Keaton, Norton, Emma Stone and the beyond brilliant cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, last year’s winner for Gravity. Another Oscar voter — and his wife — both told me they really enjoyed the film, but 512QQW5Z5DLI didn’t get the vibe it is rushing to the top of his Best Picture list. Although not necessary to rack up a lot of key nominations, the film’s fate as it expands to places between the left and right coasts could be a strong factor in keeping it front of mind.

Showbiz-oriented films have not traditionally been Best Picture winners but recently Argo, which had a key Hollywood hook to it, as well as The Artist, of course, both took the top prize. And in 1950 All About Eve, which like Birdman was set on Broadway, swept the Oscars and to this day shares a record with Titanic as the most nominated film in Oscar history with 14. Critics groups can be a strong force for this film, and so might the Golden Globes where I am told there is debate over placing it in Comedy or Drama — a decision that ultimately could have a major effect on the race. One awards consultant who attended the Academy screening and who has a film competing in Drama at the Globes is praying they put this one in Comedy.

“It’s a definite contender,” they said.