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News Corp's Fox leads Hollywood studios in Oscar nods

By Ronald Grover and Sue Zeidler

Los Angeles (Reuters) - News Corp's 20th Century Fox led the Oscars race among Hollywood studios by scoring 31 nominations, including best picture nods for both "Lincoln" and "Life of Pi," setting the stage for the box office bounces that selected films often get.

The coveted nominations for the 85th annual Academy Awards, to be held on February 24, will trigger new and frenzied marketing efforts for the highlighted films, as studios jostle to take advantage of the buzz before Hollywood's biggest night.

The high scorecard for Rupert Murdoch's News Corp marked yet another triumph for the media company which has seen its stock almost double from a panic-driven sell-off in 2011 in response to a phone hacking scandal that engulfed its British newspapers.

Its Fox film unit earned 12 nominations on Thursday for "Lincoln," a U.S. Civil War-era movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis that took home more nominations than any other film. Fox co-financed the film and distributed it internationally.

"Lincoln" was produced by Dreamworks and distributed domestically by Walt Disney, ranking third among studios in nominations, with 17 nods, including 12 for "Lincoln."

Sony Pictures Entertainment, which was second with 24 nominations, earned nods for "Zero Dark Thirty," "Skyfall" and "Amour," with five nominations each.

Fox also earned 11 nominations for "Life of Pi," among them best picture, best director and adapted screenplay, while its Fox Searchlight unit scored four nods for independent film "Beasts of the Southern Wild," including best picture and best director.

"We couldn't be more thrilled to have such a diverse range of films recognized by the Academy," said Jim Gianopulos, CEO and Chairman 20th Century Fox Film. "And it's been equally gratifying to see how audiences throughout the world have embraced these pictures."

Indeed, in a break from years past, several of this year's best picture nominees were commercial as well as critical successes. Four of the nominees -- "Les Miserables," "Lincoln," "Django Unchained" and "Argo" -- have grossed more than $100 million each in North American ticket sales, an unusually large number for a best-picture crop.

These films either already are in more than 2,000 theaters or were there earlier in their run.

"Lincoln" producer Kathleen Kennedy told Reuters this was a "very healthy indication" for creativity in the movie business.

"I think the wonderful thing about this year is there are so many really good movies, not just from a story standpoint but the fact that so many...are doing great business," she said.

"A few years ago many of the people...were frustrated by the fact that they felt the studio system was not going to make these kind of projects any more," she said.

Among the day's big misses was Dreamworks Animation, whose "Rise of the Guardians" failed to score a best animated feature nomination, against "Frankenweenie," "Wreck-It Ralph," "ParaNorman," "The Pirates!Band of Misfits" and "Brave."

NOMINATIONS "DO WONDERS"

But for more successful studios, their nominations will spur more ticket sales, experts say.

"For the right film at the right time, Oscar nominations and most importantly a best picture nomination can do wonders for a nominated film's cachet, profile and 'must see' factor," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office division of Hollywood.com.

The privately-held Weinstein Co, which is headed by brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein and is well-known for its intense post-nomination marketing strategy, pulled in 16, including nods for "Silver Linings Playbook," "The Master" and "Django Unchained."

Last year, Weinstein Co's "The Artist," a film about a silent-movie star, took home the golden statue for best picture, generating $44.6 million in North American box office ticket sales in all. Of that total, 71 percent came in after its nomination and victory.

The Weinstein Co beefed up its TV ads and increased the number of theaters showing the movie three days after its Oscar nomination, to 897 from 662, said movie online site Box Office Mojo. That number rose to 1,756 a week after it won the award.

"Zero Dark Thirty," a gritty film distributed by Sony about the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs, is being shown in only 60 theaters, but will be expanded to about 2,400 theaters on Friday, said Dergarabedian. The film collected five nods, including best picture and best screenplay, but suffered one of the biggest snubs of the day -- no best director nomination for Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow.

Adam Fogelson, chairman of Universal, a unit of Comcast and distributor of best film nominee "Les Miserables," said the movie's marketing from the start was aimed to take advantage of awards season and it has helped.

"We are already on a great trajectory domestically, and we have indications that people are talking about this film internationally as well," he told Reuters.

Oscars can also breathe new life into DVD sales.

When Lions Gate Entertainment took home the gold for "Crash" in 2006, it had already been released in both the theatrical and DVD markets. Its DVD sales spiked after the Academy Awards, with Lions Gate selling 17,500 copies of "Crash" in one day after the Oscars, more than half the previous week's entire total of 33,000.

(Reporting By Ronald Grover and Sue Zeidler; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Bob Burgdorfer)

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