"The Town" floated out of the Venice Film Festival on a cloud of Oscar buzz, and heading into the weekend, most box-office prognosticators expected Ben Affleck's drama to win the #1 spot.
But who could have predicted that "The Town" would net $23.5 million, a September record for Warner Bros.? Now there's no doubting that the guy who once starred in "Gigli" and "Jersey Girl" has a serious Oscar hopeful on his hands.
"Typically September releases turn out to be Oscar frauds," said Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "Not so with 'The Town,' as it has the reviews and b.o. to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. Being #1 at the box office always helps the cause of any film, as it garners massive amounts of media attention."
Affleck's Boston bank-robber tale is not only a contender for one of the 10 Best Picture nominations, but could land a nod in an acting category as well. "Either Jon Hamm or Jeremy Renner could easily end up in the Supporting Actor category," said BoxOffice.com editor Phil Contrino, citing the film's robust ticket sales.
Another Boston-centric crime drama, "The Departed," opened to similar numbers and critical acclaim in 2006. The Martin Scorsese film eventually nabbed five Oscar nominations, including Mark Wahlberg's nod for Supporting Actor, and won four of them (including Best Picture and Best Director). Few would argue that Affleck's movie will mirror the awards-season success of Scorsese's, but as Contrino notes, "The Academy has a history of rewarding crime flicks that catch on in a major way and ultimately transcend their genre."
Oscar chances aside, what's most remarkable about "The Town" is the fact that it made so much money with stars not nearly as high-profile as the ones in "Departed."
"Affleck, Renner and Hamm are certainly no [Leonardo] DiCaprio, [Jack] Nicholson, and [Matt] Damon," Bock said. "That's why the debut of 'The Town' is all the more impressive. Affleck achieved this opening on concept, not star power, which is becoming increasingly more potent in Hollywood of late."
Much credit is due to Warners' marketing machine, which went to great lengths in TV ads to position "The Town" as more genre thriller than critical darling. "The ads punched up the proceedings by making the picture look (not just sound) like 'The Departed' and by using the Eminem song 'Not Afraid,' " noted Brandon Gray of Box Office Mojo.
Box-office success, of course, is not always a requirement for Oscar love. Just look at "The Hurt Locker," which won Best Picture over "Avatar" this year despite an anemic box-office showing. When the new nominations arrive early next year, we should expect a similar grouping of "Hurt Locker"-style small fare and "Avatar"-esque blockbusters.
"With 10 nominations for Best Picture, more than ever there are opportunities for smaller films and major blockbusters to be in the mix. One of those films is 'Inception,' which is a shoo-in for a Best Picture [nod]," Bock said. "This year we will see a mix of both types of films, but odds are, we won't have a smaller film win the award two years in a row, since it's never happened before 'The Hurt Locker.' "
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