By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Sony Pictures received 21 Oscar nominations on Tuesday, making it the most-nominated studio for 2012's Oscars, but the key winner may be Harvey Weinstein's company as it rolls out new movies to capitalize on Academy Award media hype.
Oscar nominations typically help boost the box office of movies still playing in theaters because awards publicity heightens awareness by moviegoers.
The studios supplement their marketing by leveraging the prestige that comes with a nod for the world's top film honors, and ultimately Oscars can help boost sales of DVDs and licensing fees for future television airings.
The privately-held Weinstein Co., run by Harvey and his brother Bob who once led Miramax Films with best picture winners like "The English Patient," had 16 nominations including 10 for "The Artist" -- the second most-nominated movie next to Paramount Pictures' "Hugo," which garnered 11 Oscar nods.
With roughly five weeks until the Academy Awards on February 26, Weinstein Co. will be promoting the nods for "The Artist" and its other movies including "The Iron Lady," which earned Meryl Streep a nomination for best actress playing former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The strategy of releasing movies to capitalize on Oscar nomination media coverage is nothing new, of course. Other companies such as Fox Searchlight with its award hopeful "The Descendants" follow the same marketing path.
Paramount with "Hugo" and Sony Pictures with "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and a re-release of "Moneyball" similarly hope to lure audiences into theaters to see their films.
But Weinstein Co. is particularly good at the strategy. Last year, it received 12 nominations for "The King's Speech" and timed the release to nominations. The movie went on to win best picture and grossed $138 million at domestic box offices.
Similarly, "The Artist" and "The Iron Lady" screened in New York and Los Angeles late last year to qualify for Oscars before their wider release from January through March when Weinstein Co. hopes to ring up the box office register.
SONY WINS WITH NUMBERS
Sony Pictures Entertainment, a unit of Sony Corp and parent for Sony Pictures Classics, Sony Pictures Releasing and Columbia Pictures, picked up six nods for numbers-crunching baseball drama "Moneyball" and five for thriller "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" among its 21 nominations.
"Dragon Tattoo" remains in theaters since its December launch and "Moneyball," which has grossed $75 million at domestic box offices since its initial released in September 2011, already has been re-issued and will look to boost sales of DVDs and hope to have a long life on TV.
"What was wonderful about this year is that we got to make a bunch of movies that are not usually the kind of movies that are a studios' bread and butter, and all of them paid off this year and that's really gratifying," said Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
While Sony Pictures led studios, Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc., scored the most nods of any single film with 11 for Scorsese's "Hugo."
The movie, which had a reported production budget estimated at $150 million, has amassed only $55 million at U.S. and Canadian box offices since its release in November 2011, and $27.3 million in overseas ticket sales.
But producer Graham King noted "Hugo" is still in theaters, has not played in many international markets, and the acclaim from Oscar nods should lead to its long life in libraries.
"The 11 nominations will help the international (box office). I'm hoping the nominations help people discover the film, and I hope it will have a long shelf life, and in 15 or 20 years people will still be talking about it," King told Reuters.
Paramount also said it will re-release this week "Rango," which earned a nomination for best animated film on Tuesday.
Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group received 13 nominations, led by Steven Spielberg's epic World War I tale, "War Horse" with six nods, while News Corp's Fox film divisions received 10 nominations, led by Fox Searchlight's family drama "The Descendants" with five nods. Both "War Horse" and "Descendants" are still playing in theaters.
(Reporting By Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)