By Anne Thompson and Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood December 18, 2013 at 2:58PM
Fox Searchlight is not out of the woods with Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," adapted by John Ridley from Solomon Northup's now bestselling memoir. After winning the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (as have four Best Picture Oscar winners, "Chariots of Fire," "American Beauty," "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The King's Speech") and the Mill Valley Film Festival, the movie has been praised by critics and pulled a remarkable number of moviegoers in its domestic run since October 18. Having grossed more than $35 million, the film ranks as the year's most successful English-language specialty platform release.
So what's to worry? "12 Years a Slave"'s Oscar competition has increased as global hit "Gravity" continues strong and latecomers "American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" pick up steam. The question is how much more box office is in the offing for Searchlight's slave drama heading toward the Oscar finish line. Taking an early lead after the fall festivals as an Oscar frontrunner, Fox Searchlight (which picked up the film from financier New Regency) will re-release the hard-hitting drama, which is now a must-see, in select cities on January 17--the day after the Oscar nominations.
The movie is popular with critics (it's won many critics group awards around the country, although surprisingly, not the most influential, New York and Los Angeles, and is nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards) and actors (it's up for four Screen Actors Guild Awards; Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o are all in contention for Oscar nominations) and the independent community (it's nominated for seven Spirit Awards including Best Feature). But on the fest circuit many Academy members admit that they are still resisting watching it. They will presumably make themselves do so over the holidays.
But it's notable that Searchlight is not going for a wider release in mid-January, which many expected them to do. Searchlight estimates that they will be in 1500 screens but that could change, and will be supporting the film with media. That's not 3,000 screens but "it's wide for a specialty release," says a Searchlight spokesperson.
The calibration at this point is how to maximize the awards effort and capture more grosses while not expending too much capital. Weinstein Co.'s "The Artist" didn't score that well at the box office after its nominations when it went wide backed by TV ads, managing to eke into the top 10 and not harm their chances. But TWC spent heavily and squandered some of their profits. Searchlight may actually want to make money on "12 Years a Slave," which is expected to go in early March.