Sony Pictures Classics hit an all-time company record this morning, collecting 18 Oscar nominations, outstripping their 2010 high when the label counted 13 nods.  Unlike some other arthouse distributors that have either fallen in love with day-and-date VOD strategies or took their niche titles too wide (only to watch them burn); SPC unspools their films the old-fashioned way: They platform ’em, city by city.

foxcatcher 2While such Oscar-nominated fare like Weinstein Co.’s The Imitation Game ($42.8M) and Fox Searchlight’s Wild  ($31.2M) have racked up solid domestic cumes, SPC has kept their theater counts for such contenders as Whiplash ($6.15M domestic B.O., five Oscar noms) and Foxcatcher ($8.7M, also five Oscar noms) under 420 venues. Since its Dec. 19 opening,  Mr Turner hasn’t played in more than 39 theaters, grossing $1.3M. Essentially, SPC has been waiting for this moment: to capitalize on Oscar nom buzz and widen their contenders. Foxcatcher is going to 800 locations this Friday while Whiplash will go to 1,000 next Friday. The label is hoping that both titles, propped by their kudos, will emulate a final gross in the neighborhood of 2005’s Capote ($28.8M), which won Philip Seymour Hoffman a best actor award as well as noms for best picture and director (Bennett Miller).

the_english_patientSPC’s force in this year’s Oscar race, coupled with the presence of Weinstein Co., Fox Searchlight, Focus Features and IFC brings to mind 1996 when indie labels dominated the Oscar best pic slot with Gramercy’s Fargo, October’s Secrets & Lies, Miramax’s English Patient and Fine Line’s Shine. Sony’s Jerry Maguire was the only major studio best pic nominee that year. This year, there are only two studio titles out of the eight best picture nominees: Paramount’s Selma and Warner Bros.’ American Sniper.

“There are a lot of auteur movies this year – even Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper,” SPC co-presidentTom Bernard told Deadline, assessing the Oscar landscape. “For the most part, studios are falling down on making smart awards-type product,” he said, “We go about buying movies that are quality titles around the world.”

Why aren’t we seeing more True Grits and Michael Claytons from the studios? “They’re moving to consolidate these giant tentpoles.  I don’t seeing them making smart movies in the vein of Forrest Gump or Midnight Cowboy anymore. In the right hands, such films can make a profit,” said Bernard who pointed to the efficiency in which director Damien Chazelle, nominated for the best aadaptedscreenplay, shot Whiplash in 17 days.

“I don’t think the majors are equipped to be flexible in their release plans. They get two to three weeks to make it in 4,000 theaters, then it’s someone else’s slot. It’s like trying to stop a giant tanker,” adds Bernard.

Whiplash JK Simmons Miles TellerCommenting on the Academy’s overlook of Chazelle as best director, Bernard says he was “shocked”, however, he was elated that the film landed a spot in the adapted screenplay following the Academy’s recent decision to switch the title from the original category. Whiplash was originally shot as a short, largely as a test reel to raise financing for the feature film. However, the short (which also starred J.K. Simmons as enraged music instructor Fletcher) played the 2013 Sundance film festival, winning the short film jury prize. “The writer’s branch is smart,” said Bernard, complimenting the precision of the new online Oscar voting system.

SPC acquired North America, Australia and Germany rights for Whiplash at last year’s Sundance Film Festival for $2.5M, in what was the fest’s first big deal, beating out such distribs as A24 and Lionsgate for the title. “It’s so much a part of our culture,” said Bernard about Whiplash. “Every kid has a coach or a music instructor who has been strong on them. It was a contemporary story.”

Still AliceJulianne Moore’s best actress Oscar-nominated film Still Alice, was a film that “SPC was following. It was on our radar. After it screened in Toronto, we bought it right away.” SPC acquired stateside rights in a low-seven figure deal.

Originally, Foxcatcher, financed by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, was to be released via Columbia Pictures as announced in November 2012. A year later, the project flipped to SPC, because as Bernard explained “it was a low budget film,not a commercial property. It wasn’t seen as a tentpole.”

 

mark ruffaloMiller in a statement said about the movie back in August 2013, “I’ve been discussing Foxcatcher with Michael Barker and Tom Bernard since I began researching the story in 2005 and it’s always been my hope and expectation that they would distribute the film. Their passion and understanding of what Foxcatcher could be and their ability to market unique and complex films makes SPC the ideal home for me. They were great partners on Capote, and I’m thrilled to be back with SPC.” To date, the film’s best market has been Philadelphia per Bernard as it was John du Pont’s stomping ground. SPC bowed the film as one of its major markets on Nov. 14 and even had a special premiere in the city.

A scene from the documentary The Salt of the EarthLast May’s Cannes Film Festival proved to be a fountainhead for SPC, where they snapped up domestic on three titles: Russian title Leviathan (which they bought within six hours after seeing it at the fest), Wild Tales (including Australia/New Zealand) and Un Certain Regard doc Salt of the Earth which won the Special Prize award.  SPC was involved with Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner since investing in it at the script stage, and they arrived on the Croisette with the title.

The recurring challenges that lie ahead in the the post-Oscar nom season are “getting people to see all five foreign language films and documentaries,” said Bernard.  SPC has always campaigned more efficiently than their competition during Oscar season, maximizing their dollar spend as much as possible. Free media is as valuable as word of mouth — fashion glossies, for example, spurred the box office for Carey Mulligan2009’s An Education ($12.6m) embracing British import Carey Mulligan as their new cover girl.  The biggest needle that moves the meter during Oscar season for SPC and raises a film’s profile is “when talent shows up” to Oscar-related events and Q&As says the SPC co-president.  Above all, the label’s biggest to-do, as it is for all competing distribs, is to “make sure people watch the (Oscar-nominated) movies. You can’t convince someone to vote for a movie that is bad.  Bad movies don’t get in (to the Oscar race),” says Bernard.

And one thing SPC doesn’t have to worry about is bad movies. Below is a list of SPC’s Oscar nominated titles and their categories

Foxcatcher: Steve Carell for actor in a lead role; Mark Ruffalo for actor in a supporting role; Bennett Miller for directing; E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman for original screenplay Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard for makeup and hairstyling.

Leviathan: Best foreign language film

Mr. Turner: Suzie Davies and Charlotte Watts for production design, Jacqueline Durran for costume design, Dick Pope for cinematography, Gary Yershon for original score

Salt of the Earth: Best documentary feature

Still Alice: Julianne Moore for actress in a leading role

Whiplash: Best Picture,J.K. Simmons for actor in a supporting role, Damien Chazelle for adapted screenplay, Tom Cross for film editing;  Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley for sound mixing

Wild Tales: best foreign language film