‘American Hustle’ and ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Hit Box Office in Heat of Awards Race

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Only a handful of awards-caliber films are yet to open as Globes nominees look to build momentum

With the Oscar race heading into the home turn, frontrunners “American Hustle” and “Saving Mr. Banks” make their box office debuts Friday.

At the same time, “Inside Llewyn Davis” will be trying to build on its spectacular limited opening of last weekend and, along with “12 Years a Slave,” “Nebraska” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” build on the momentum from a strong showing at Thursday’s Golden Globes nominations.

With David O. Russell’s swindler drama and Disney’s tale of the making of “Mary Poppins” entering the market, there are only a handful of contenders left to roll out. Spike Jonze’s emo fantasy “Her” will arrive on Dec. 20, while Ben Stiller‘s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio‘s “Wolf of Wall Street” and “August: Osage County,” with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, are set for Christmas Day.

Also read: The Golden Globes Big Shock: They Got it Right

“Saving Mr. Banks,” which stars Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as author P.L. Travers, will debut in 15 theaters in the nation’s top markets including New York, L.A., Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Seattle.

The plan is to showcase the film and build buzz this weekend, ahead of its nationwide release on Dec. 20, when it will be in more than 2,000 theaters.

It’s a pattern similar to the one Disney utilized last year for DreamWorks’ “Lincoln,” an awards favorite that went on to become a box-office hit with $186 million domestically and $275 million worldwide. Disney opened “Lincoln” in 11 theaters and then jumped it to 1 ,775 in its second week and to 2,018 locations five days later.

It connected with the art house and Heartland crowds, and the studio is hoping “Mr. Banks” can, too.

“The plan speaks to the multiple levels we anticipate it will play on — adult and awards-worthy as well as heartwarming so that will appeal to parents with older children,” Disney’s distribution chief Dave Hollis told TheWrap. “It’s a special film we wanted available to a wide audience during the holiday period.”

“Mr. Banks” was produced for $35 million by Alison Owen for Disney, in association with BBC Films and Essential Media.

Also read: ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Review: Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks Are Spit-Spot-On in This Hollywood Valentine

Distributor Sony will have the R-rated “American Hustle,” based on the 1980s ABSCAM influence-peddling scandal, on three theaters in New York and three in Los Angeles this weekend.

Along with “12 Years a Slave,” it led the Golden Globes nominations with seven nods. Director Russell was named, as were lead Christian Bale and supporting players Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.

The early reviews have been exceptional (95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and “American Hustle,” produced for $40 million by Annapurna, Atlas, and Columbia Pictures, is very much in the discussion for best picture awards, as is “Saving Mr. Banks.”

CBS Films, meanwhile, will expand Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” into 15 theaters in N.Y. and L.A. this weekend after claiming three Globes noms Thursday.

The comedy-drama starring Oscar Isaac as a singer trying to make it in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s averaged a very impressive $101,353 in its debut — the Coens’ best-ever — on four theaters last weekend.

Like “Mr. Banks” and “American Hustle,” “Llewyn Davis” will go wide on Dec. 20. Paramount Vantage is taking

“Nebraska” from 113 theaters to 250 theaters, in the wake of its five Globes nominations Thursday, which included best picture. Director Alexander Payne earned a nod as did leads Bruce Dern and June Squibb and Bob Nelson for screenplay.

Also taking advantage of awards-season heat: Sony Pictures Classics, which is expanding Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” into 300 theaters this weekend.

Star Cate Blanchett earned a Golden Globe best actress nomination Thursday and a Screen Actors Guild Award nod on Wednesday, after winning a slew of awards from critics groups last weekend.

“Blue Jasmine” was released in July and has taken in more than $32 million. It peaked at 1,283 theaters in late August and cracked the top 10, but has been dropping theaters recently and was in fewer than 40 last weekend.

Also read: 10 Oscar Lessons From the First Blitz of Critics’ Awards

Adding screens isn’t always easy for distributors, since theater owners — like moviegoers — have a lot of options right now.

Fox Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave,” Fox’s “The Book Thief,” the Weinstein Company’s “Philomena” and Focus Features’ “Dallas Buyers Club” are all still in or near the top ten, and there’s a lot of more commercial product in the market and on the way. “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug” arrives Friday, “Anchorman 2″ rolls out on Dec. 20 and “Frozen” and “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” are still playing.

“It’s not just that there’s a lot of movies out there,” said TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis, “it’s that there are a lot of really good movies.”

His company’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” which also earned three Globes, will stay on four screen this weekend, then go wide on Christmas Day.