How 'Black Swan' Suddenly Became a Best Picture Contender

Black Swan

The Natalie Portman film is raising its profile ahead of an expanded release at the box office next weekend.

Broad sellouts in limited release and early awards-season acclaim suddenly have lifted Fox Searchlight's Black Swan into an Oscar best picture contender, just as the Natalie Portman starrer prepares to spread its theatrical wings wide next weekend.

Academy Award nominations won't be announced until Jan. 25, so the most immediate drama for the ballet-themed suspense thriller begins Friday, when Swan adds more than 900 playdates for more than 1,000 total engagements. Toting $5.6 million in cumulative box office through two frames in limited release, Swan last weekend collected $3.3 million from just 90 domestic locations for an auspicious $37,000 theater average.

Set in the competitive world of professional ballet, Swan was directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) with co-stars including Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey.

"We knew it was challenging subject matter, but we made a bet on Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman," Searchlight co-topper Steve Gilulua said Monday. "What's been a very pleasant surprise is that is seems to be resonating with a broader audience so early."

Swan has been playing to audiences skewing about 55% female. "We keep hearing anecdotally about women who have seen it two or three times already," Gilula said.

Meantime, the American Film Institute named Swan one of 2010's 10 best movies during the weekend. That should bolter its Oscar credentials ahead of the Academy's 10 best picture nominations, though AFI considers only American productions and thus relegated much-praised British drama The King's Speech to a special award.

Also during the weekend, members of the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. swooned for Swan with a record 12 Critics' Choice Movie Awards nominations in categories including best picture. The one-two kudos coup, combined with another big weekend of limited play, sets Swan up nicely to draught off of its critical praise at the box office and simultaneously bolster its awards prospects by displaying even clearer commercial traction.

Searchlight has made a habit of combining mass appeal with critical praise.

The Fox specialty unit secured an Oscar best picture win with 2008's Slumdog Millionaire, a gritty but entertaining Indian drama that rang up $141.3 million domestically. Searchlight's 2007 dramatic comedy Juno similarly boasted a critical and commercial combo when it was included among the Academy's then five-film list of best-picture nominees.

Juno lost the best-picture statuette to Miramax's No Country for Old Men, which had broad critical support but considerably less commercial success than Juno (though more than last year's Oscar best pic, The Hurt Locker, a mere $16.4 million domestic grosser). Searchlight also drew best-picture noms for 2006's Little Miss Sunshine and 2005's Sideways.

Swan's first weekend in wide release should produce a three-day sum well into the low double-digit millions. Depending on its screen average, Swan could even compete for third on the frame behind big-budgeted wide openers Tron: Legacy from Disney and Yogi Bear from Warner Bros. -- whose productions costs each ran more than 10 times the estimated $13 million spent on Swan.

"That's unusual for us," Gilula said. "We do alternative film, and sometimes we are fortunate when they cross over to mainstream audiences. But our main goal is to bring to market films that are different. Some times they do cross over."