Oscar Movies Are Leading To Big Box Office

5:00 AM PST 02/25/2011 by Pamela McClintock
Courtesy of The Weinstein Company/Courtesy of Summit Entertainment
"The King's Speech," left, and "The Hurt Locker."

This season's stunning box-office receipts from "Black Swan" and "The King's Speech" may prompt Hollywood to greenlight similar adult projects.

The following story appears in the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter on newsstands now. Subscribers can read the issue online here

The King's Speech has jumped the $200 million mark worldwide. Black Swan and True Grit are right behind it. The Social Network got there in January, The Fighter has passed $100 million -- and the Oscars haven't even happened yet.

The stunning box-office performance of small awards films this season has rocked the conventional thinking in Hollywood, prompting many to speculate on whether studios will rush to release more adult dramas.

There was already evidence of the new detente at the Sundance Film Festival. As specialty films soared at the January box office, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, the Weinstein Co. and Sony Pictures Classics were on a spending spree. Even Paramount, which hasn't been a major player since its specialty division Paramount Vantage was folded in 2008, partnered with Indian Paintbrush to pay $4 million for domestic rights to the small romance Like Crazy.

"It's pretty impressive what the Academy dramas have done, and not just in the U.S. but all over the world," Sony Pictures Entertainment vice chair Jeff Blake says.

Another top studio executive says he's witnessing more discussions about making specialty films that were previously off limits.

"Studio heads love to make these films, but they're reluctant because they're worried they won't do any business," the exec says. "Seeing all these films work reinforces that if you have a compelling story, a film will perform."

Discussions are one thing, but one studio topper says adult dramas will continue to need great scripts and moderate budgets because of the inherent risks involved. Take last year's best picture winner, The Hurt Locker, which drew raves but grossed only $17 million domestically and $32.2 million overseas for a global total of $49.2 million.

So why is the 2010 class doing so well? Everything clicked: the movies, the marketing, the timing.

"The performance of these types of films is dependent on great execution," Paramount vice chair Rob Moore says. "Clearly, this was an extraordinary group of films that have had great word-of-mouth and strong reviews."

Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chair Tom Rothman elaborates. "I think what's been overlooked in all the talk about the 'trend' to adult dramas is just how flat-out entertaining these pictures are," he says. "Black Swan, King's Speech, True Grit all have one thing in common: They are invigorating, energizing films that deliver great emotional experiences."

This year, it seems every distributor has been able to open small and build buzz. King's Speech, for instance, hit $230.6 million in worldwide cume Feb. 20 after passing $100 million domestically. Box-office observers suggest the film could deliver $150 million domestic for the Weinstein Co.

Some question whether these films would be doing so well if not for the lack of a major non-awards hit (domestic revenue is down a steep 25% year to date). A year ago, for example, Avatar, Sherlock Holmes and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel dominated the beginning of the year.

"They are in theaters where the average person can actually see them," one veteran studio marketer says. "Usually, there's a lot of people who don't have access to the Oscar-nominated films. It's almost like a perfect storm."

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