Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, expands to about 2,500 theaters this weekend, part of Sony’s plan to exploit buzz from Thursday’s Oscar nominations.
The film has been denounced by three senators for its depiction of torture, notoriety that’s generated publicity for the movie. Sony limited showings of “Zero Dark Thirty” while critical praise and headlines in Washington stoked demand.
“It’s now a must-see movie,” said Tom O’Neil, editor of GoldDerby.com, which provides odds on award races. “This is one of the most dramatic events in recent history, and of course it would be controversial. Otherwise the filmmakers aren’t doing their jobs.”
The strategy may bring in as much as $135 million in domestic ticket sales for a movie that cost $20 million to make, according to industry researcher Exhibitor Relations. Three years ago another Oscar hopeful, “Slumdog Millionaire,” more than doubled its theater count a day after the nominations and went on to triple its U.S. sales. Sony is going further with a 40-fold jump in locations.
Kathryn Bigelow’s account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” a tale of the rescue of six Americans trapped in Iran were nominated for best picture Thursday morning, but neither Bigelow nor Affleck — both considered locks in the category — were selected for best director.
And that means “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo” now have very little chance of beating out Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in the best picture race. Historically, the winner of the best picture trophy always is nominated in the directing competition.
The nationwide release of “Zero Dark Thirty” was part of Sony’s marketing strategy, said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide marketing and distribution.
“We felt like we had a film that was an edge-of-your-seat thriller,” Bruer said in an interview.
“Slumdog Millionaire” went on to collect $141.3 million in U.S. sales as the News Corp. film won eight Academy Awards, including best picture and best director for Danny Boyle. It collected $378 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.
“Zero Dark Thirty” faces competition on the awards circuit from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”; Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” about the Iranian hostage crisis; and the musical “Les Miserables.”
GoldDerby.com ranks “Zero Dark Thirty” third in the Oscar race, tied with “Les Miserables” and behind “Lincoln” at No. 1 and “Argo.” Scores are based on forecasts by journalists, the website’s editors and readers.
“Zero Dark Thirty” was nominated for four Golden Globe awards, including best drama, best director, best screenplay and best supporting actress in a drama for Chastain.
Critics have praised the film for its realistic look at the clandestine world of intelligence gathering. Of 112 reviews compiled by the movie website Rottentomatoes.com, 105 were positive, or 94 percent.
Sony opened “Zero Dark Thirty” on Dec. 19 in five theaters in New York and Los Angeles, qualifying for the 2012 awards and avoiding box-office competition with other holiday releases. As of Jan. 7, it had $4.6 million in sales from U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Box Office Mojo.
“Certainly we looked at the other films,” Bruer said. “The release pattern is unique to this particular film. We thought it would be appropriate and so far, so good.”
Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Carl Levin of Michigan, along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have objected to the movie’s suggestion that harsh interrogation of captured al-Qaida members provided key information about bin Laden’s whereabouts.
Congressional members have also questioned whether Bigelow and writer Mark Boal were given access to classified material.
The film opens with scenes of an al-Qaida member being waterboarded, deprived of sleep and forced to spend long periods curled in a small box before revealing the name of a bin Laden courier.
Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, in a message to the agency’s employees, said that some of the critical information came from detainees subjected to “enhanced” methods, the New York Times reported on Dec. 22.
A debate over the movie’s accuracy and the harsh treatment of prisoners will probably generate more interest in the film, said Phil Contrino, editor of BoxOffice.com, a website that tracks movie performance.
“It just helps it, creates audience curiosity,” he said. “The senators speaking out about it are bringing more attention to it.