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Why ‘The Artist’ Stands to Gain More From Its Oscar Nods Than ‘Hugo’

”Hugo“ may have gotten the most nominations, but they likely came too late to rescue it at the box office

They may be hits with Oscar voters, but this year’s Best Picture nominees are not exactly standouts at the box office.

Instead of tentpole movies like “Inception” and “Toy Story 3,” the Academy selected critical favorites such as “Hugo” and “Tree of Life" as contenders for its big prize. (Respectively, they have brought in just $55.8 million and $13 million at the domestic box office so far.)

Collectively, the nine Best Picture nominees announced on Tuesday have brought in $517.2 million domestically, according to Rentrak. That’s more than a quarter-billion dollars less than 2009 contender “Avatar” brought in domestically.

In fact, “The Help” is the only best picture nominee to gross more than $100 million in the United States. DreamWorks’ civil rights drama racked up $170 million – more than the next two highest money-earners, “War Horse” and “Moneyball,” combined.

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That may not be a bad thing. The nominations may give many of the contenders a second life at the box office. And the movie that most Oscar-watchers consider the favorite, "The Artist," will benefit most of all.

"The Artist" came in second to "Hugo" in nominations, with 10 to the latter's 11 nods, but the movie is much earlier in its box office run than 3D "Hugo."

“ 'The Artist’ will benefit maybe more than any film in the history of Oscar nominations,” Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations, told TheWrap Tuesday. “Unlike ‘The King’s Speech,’ where a speech impediment is one thing, having no speaking whatsoever in your film presents a real test of how to market it to middle America.”

Because the Weinstein Co. can now shout "Best Picture nominee” in its advertising, the studio will be able to significantly add to the black-and-white film’s $12 million domestic gross.

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The company is expanding the movie from 662 locations to 900 this Friday, Erik Lomis, Weinstein’s chief of distribution, told TheWrap on Tuesday. After the movie won a Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy last weekend, the company plotted the expansion.

Weinstein plans to pad that number by another 500 locations or so over the next week.

“Hopefully, ‘The Artist’ will break through to the commercial audience now,” Lomis said. “We know that it plays great and we know that it holds in like a rock.”

Likewise, “The Descendants,” Fox Searchlight’s George Clooney-led dramatic comedy, has grossed roughly $51 million since its Nov. 16 debut, and Fox is expanding it to 1,900 screens.

“When we came in on Monday and exhibition saw the huge bump, it got a lot more theaters to come in,” Sheila DeLoach, Fox Searchlight’s executive vice president of distribution, told TheWrap. “That’s probably due to the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture and Best Actor, and the fact that George Clooney and [director] Alexander Payne had been on quite a bit of television shows.”

That could put the R-rated movie on track to gross $70 million – or more – at the domestic box office. That’s a strong number for a movie that cost an estimated $15 million to make and centers on a grieving husband coping with his wife’s coma and revelations of her infidelity before her accident.

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But there may be a limit to how much the Oscar nominations can help some. Of the nine nominees, four already are available on DVD and Blu-ray.

The movie with the most nominations, Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” is winding down its theatrical run. Although Paramount plans to expand the 3D movie from 650 locations to 944, it will have difficulty securing more 3D screens, which already are in short supply.

“They might be able to squeeze a little more out of it, but it’s doubtful that theaters are going to want to bump new 3D releases just to give ‘Hugo’ more space,” Phil Contrino, editor of Boxoffice.com, told TheWrap. “If it had come out at the end of December, it would have really benefited, but it came out in November, and ultimately that hurt it.”

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Though critically adored, the film has been a huge box-office disappointment for its producer, Graham King. With a budget well north of $150 million, “Hugo” has eked out a mere $83 million worldwide. Its domestic take is a measly $56 million.

Last year, many contenders benefited from hitting theaters at roughly the same time the best picture nominations were unveiled.

“True Grit,” “Black Swan” and “The Fighter” all premiered or expanded late in the fall, allowing them to add tens of millions to their box office gross on the strength of their Oscar nominations.

On top of that, the Academy nominated 10 movies last year, rather than nine this year.

For “Extremely Loud,” a 9-11 drama that has been ripped apart by critics, the surprise Best Picture nod could substantially boost its $10.7 million domestic gross. The picture opened wide this past weekend after five weeks in limited release. Thus far, it has taken in $10.7 million.

DreamWorks’ “War Horse,” which has been in release since Christmas Day, should also see a modest bump — though not as big as it would have, had Steven Spielberg's movie secured acting and director nominations.

“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” came up short in two key categories — Best Picture and Best Director — and that could hurt it at the box office. Although Sony’s R-rated picture earned Rooney Mara a Best Actress nomination, a Best Picture or Director nod could have propelled the underperforming thriller well past the $100 million mark.

As of Monday, the movie had brought in $95 million at the domestic box office.

Of course, compared to this crop of potential Best Picture nominees, that gross makes “Tattoo” a winner.