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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The Oscar box office mystery: What brought adult moviegoers back to the theaters?

February 17, 2011 |  2:45 pm

Natalie_portman For years, everybody has had a field day taking potshots at the Academy Awards, saying that the Oscar-nominated movies had no mojo with American filmgoers. Conservative critics said liberal Hollywood was woefully out of touch with rank-and-file movie fans. Indie producers said the Academy was picking perfectly good movies, but the films couldn't compete with the studios’ costly, wall-to-wall marketing of their comic-book franchises.

In any case, damning evidence of the disconnect was there for all to see. “The Hurt Locker,” last year’s best picture winner, earned a paltry $17 million in the theaters, the lowest box-office take for a best picture winner in modern history. In 2009, three of the five best picture nominees couldn’t crack the $35 million mark in domestic earnings. In 2007, the best-picture winning “The Departed” was a hit, but none of the four other nominees even made $60 million.

This year is different -- very different. There are now 10 best picture nominees. Two of them, "Inception" and "Toy Story 3," were big summer blockbusters. And if you look at the five best picture favorites -- meaning the five films whose filmmakers are also up for the best director Oscar -- they have something remarkable in common. The films (“The King's Speech,” “The Social Network,” “The Fighter,” “True Grit” and “Black Swan”) have all made more than $85 million at the U.S. box office, with three of the five films having passed or on track to pass $100 million.

Talk about unprecedented. According to Paul Dergarabedian, the box-office guru at Hollywood.com, there have never been five best picture nominees that all made that much money in any Oscar season. In fact, in 2006, the year “Crash” won best picture, none of the five nominees made $85 million.

It's worth offering a few comparisons to illustrate just how impressive this showing is. “Black Swan,” which was co-financed by 20th Century Fox’s specialty Searchlight division and only cost $13 million to make, has just passed the $100 million mark -- putting it on track to outperform all of big Fox's 2010 releases. “True Grit” has made $160 million, outgrossing such high-profile studio comedies as “Little Fockers” and “Jackass 3-D.”

“The King’s Speech,” which cost $12 million to make, is nearing $100 million in the United States, meaning it has outgrossed “The Green Hornet,” the biggest commercial release of 2011. Sony’s “The Social Network,” which has made $96 million, is a much bigger U.S. hit than either “The Tourist” or “How Do You Know,” the studio’s two star-studded, end-of-year releases.

This is great news for adult moviegoers, who proved that they will come out to support films that get good reviews and remain in theaters long enough to capitalize on great word of mouth. But is it a happy accident? Or could it be a sign of a commercial rebirth for quality films?

According to Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal, this was all about good filmmaking. “These were just good movies, the way Oscar movies used to be decades ago,” she told me. “They weren't fringy art movies. They weren't made to win prizes and nominations. They were made because they were good commercial bets. You have to remember that in the old days, it was Warner Bros. that made ‘All the President's Men,’ not a speciality division. I think it's really encouraging because it’s a reminder that what’s good should also be what’s commercial.”

It's important, however, to remember that good movies don’t exist in a vacuum. Just as young moviegoers have been trained to expect a deluge of special-effects driven superhero movies in the summer, adults realize that Oscar season -- which now stretches from October through February -- is the one reliable time of year when they can actually find a well-made drama at their local multiplex. Thanks to the Oscar hoopla, serious films can enjoy the kind of long theatrical run they are denied at any other time of the year.

This year's Oscar-nominated films have benefited from the absence of stiff competition from the studio behemoths in January and February. Business in 2011 is down 24% from 2010, with the weekend box office off for 13 straight weekends from the previous year. Some of that can be written off as early 2010’s “Avatar” effect, but not all. When this year’s Oscar crop was building steam in December and early January, there were only two decent-sized hits to compete against, “Tron: Legacy” and “Little Fockers.”

The lack of competition carried over into 2011. Only eight films have been in wide release so far this year, compared to 12 a year ago at this time, allowing the popular Oscar best picture films to make millions more and hold on to their screens.

“It's been great news for us, because the Oscar films are the films we provide at our theaters,” said Ted Mundorff, whose adult-oriented Landmark Theaters chain is enjoying a 13% bump in business from a year ago. “This holiday season, when people wanted to get out of the house, they went to see the story-driven films, not the special-effects pictures.”

Michael London, a producer who’s made awards-season films like “Sideways” and “The Visitor,” said “even if it is a fluke, it could still become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“When you see all these movies made by gifted filmmakers do so well, it's bound to embolden producers, writers and most importantly, distributors, knowing that if it happened once, it can happen again,” he said.

Though most of the studios gave up on their specialty divisions in recent years, that might not be such a bad thing; as long as they were around, their parent studios were less likely to be emotionally involved in the kind of risk-taking necessary to make quality-driven adult films. If there's any bad news, it's that we won't see any immediate impact from this season’s Oscar box-office bonanza.

In the outside world, change comes remarkably fast. In just a few weeks, demonstrations demanding democracy spread like wildfire from Tunisia to Egypt, toppling governments, spurred by in part by social networking. In Hollywood, it takes far longer to recognize a populist, moviegoer-driven revolt. Even if studios are scrambling now to find a host of story-oriented films, it could easily be two years before we'll see results in the theaters. For all its fascination with fads and trends, the movie business is far more open to evolution than revolution.

--Patrick Goldstein    

Photo: Natalie Portman, best actress nominee in "Black Swan," at the Academy Awards nominee luncheon this month.

Credit: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

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