Mike Fleming

In a surprise development, Tom Ortenberg’s Open Road has set the Joe Carnahan-directed killer wolf pack thriller The Grey to open wide on Jan. 27. Now, that puts the movie beyond the Oscars. But I’m told that Open Road has left open the possibility that the film could get a qualifying run in two theaters before year’s end so that Liam Neeson would qualify for the Best Actor category. I must say I am a bit surprised that the qualifying run isn’t an automatic. Buyers who watched the movie and bid on it in July before Open Road won it — paying near $8 million and a $25 million P&A commitment for U.S. rights — all hailed Neeson’s performance as Oscar bait. The deal was based on watching 30 minutes of scenes, but word was that opening this year, even just to qualify, was a priority for the sellers and a reason some distributors with full Oscar-season skeds shied away. Neeson plays the leader of a group of oil drillers who struggle to survive in the wilds of Alaska after their plane crashes smack in the middle of a territorial rogue wolf pack. Carnahan won’t finish the film in time to show it at Telluride, Toronto or the New York Film Festival, but they will get enough feedback from advance screenings to make a decision about whether it’s ready to wage an Oscar campaign for Neeson, who was nominated once in his career for Schindler’s List and has enjoyed a leading man resurgence thanks to Taken. Here is Open Road’s official announcement about the date:

LOS ANGELES, CA, August 11, 2011 – Open Road Films will release the highly anticipated, action-packed survival thriller, The Grey, in theaters nationwide on January 27, 2012. The Grey stars Liam Neeson and is directed by Joe Carnahan (A-Team, Smokin’ Aces, Narc); it was produced by Liddell Entertainment. The announcement was made today by Tom Ortenberg, CEO of Open Road Films.

In The Grey, Liam Neeson leads an unruly group of oil-rig roughnecks when their plane crashes into the remote Alaskan wilderness. Battling mortal injuries and merciless weather, the survivors have only a few days to escape the icy elements – and a vicious pack of rogue wolves on the hunt – before their time runs out.

The Grey also features Frank Grillo (upcoming Warrior and Lay The Favorite), Dermot Mulroney (Burn After Reading, About Schmidt), Dallas Roberts (The Good Wife, 3:10 To Yuma), Joe Anderson (Across The Universe, upcoming ABC series The River), James Badge Dale (upcoming World War Z, The Conspirator, HBO’s The Pacific), Nonso Anozie (upcoming Conan The Barbarian, Atonement, RocknRolla).

The Grey is produced by Jules Daly, Joe Carnahan, Ridley Scott and Mickey Liddell. Executive producers are Tony Scott and Jennifer Hilton as well as Jim Seibel, Bill Johnson and Marc Butan of Inferno Entertainment.