With an Eye on Oscars, ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Pi’ Unexpectedly Ace Box-Office Tests

Analysis: Contenders "Lincoln" and "Life of Pi" build awards momentum as they reap unexpected gains at the box office

“Lincoln” and “Life of Pi” had strong Oscar credentials coming in to their debuts, but neither was considered much of a force at the box-office. Now they are.

With its stronger-than-expected $34 million Thanksgiving weekend haul, “Lincoln” has grossed $62 million and exceeded analysts' box office expectations since debuting on 11 screens three weeks ago. Distributor Disney expanded the DreamWorks historical drama into 1,775 theaters in its second week and then 2,018 theaters for Thanksgiving. Its per-screen average was an impressive $11,859 two weeks ago and an even-better $12,398 over the holiday weekend. 

"The 19 percent uptick this weekend should be a clear signal that Spielberg’s biopic is being viewed by moviegoers as a legitimate candidate for Best Picture," Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations told TheWrap.

The box-office success is not a total surprise, but it wasn't a given either. Oscar-friendly names like Steven Spielberg, a three-time winner, and two-time winner Daniel Day-Lewis help at the box office. But Spielberg’s “War Horse” topped out at $82 million after being nominated for a Best Picture last year. "There Will Be Blood,”  which starred Day-Lewis and won him a best-actor Oscar, managed just $40 million in 2007.

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“You have amazing storytellers at the height of their craft sharing an exhilarating portrait of one of the most important figures in history," Dave Hollis, Disney's head of distribution, told TheWrap. He said the November timing of "Lincoln" helped, "coming off this election season, what with all the discussion of leadership."

But Hollis knows that instead of being inspired, after this election cycle many Americans could have had their fill of politicians, and not been in the mood for a talky drama that unfolds in the 19th Century House of Representatives. The fact that those who've seen it have loved the film — it received an "A" CinemaScore — probably has more to do with the filmmakers and the iconic power of Abraham Lincoln than President Obama or Mitt Romney.

Besides Day-Lewis and Spielberg, supporting players like Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field will garner awards notice, and their presence may have been a draw for the film's older-skewing audiences. On its opening weekend, 67 percent were over 35.

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“Life of Pi,” on the other hand, was always seen as a risk. Based on Yann Martel's 2001 fantasy novel, the unlikely tale of an Indian youth lost at sea with a ravenous tiger took seven years to make it to the screen. With its $120 million production budget, it represented a significant gamble for Fox.

Director Ang Lee had previously found mainstream and Oscar success with other unusual subject matter like martial arts ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and gay cowboys ("Brokeback Mountain"), but this film's star was an Indian teenager who had never acted before.

Going in, analysts saw the film with four-quadrant potential, possibly connecting with young and old, males and females. But it also was vulnerable for that reason; with no single demographic to target, any sort of rival movie could appeal more to moviegoers. With "Pi" in 2,902 theaters, 2,633 of which were 3D, analysts had projected a five-day take of around $22 million.

It passed that on Saturday, on its way to $30 million for the long weekend. Those aren't blockbuster numbers, but they do provide a base upon which to build with word-of-mouth and awards buzz.

"We took a chance because we believed in the movie," Fox's head of distribution
Chris Aronson told TheWrap. "We believed audiences wanted this sort of unique, quality film and it's gratifying that they sought it out."

Sixty-eight percent of the "Pi" grosses were from 3D showings, and 8 percent of that came from large format screenings. No one seemed to mind the surcharges. Audiences, which turned out to be 52 percent male and 60 percent 25 and older, gave it an "A" CinemaScore.

The 3D version, which could have driven cost-conscious moviegoers away, became a lure. Prior to its opening, many observers felt that the cinematography, high-tech effects and below-the-line work in "Pi" would draw more love than Lee or the film itself come awards season, but a groundswell of mainstream support could change that.

"I think the debut will go a long way for Fox when promoting this as a Best Picture nominee," Bock said. "The last thing you want in an Oscar race is lack of exposure and lackluster box office returns. This could easily hit $100 million if more adults flock to this film, as I think they will in weeks to come."

Both camps intend to stay the course with their films, with minor screen-count tweaks expected until the Oscar nominations and the awards season hits high gear. At that point, depending on how well they do, major expansions could be in order.

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Fox executives were further buoyed by box office news from abroad, where 'Pi" is expected to play more strongly than in the U.S. It opened No. 1 in all four overseas markets in which it debuted — India, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan — and brought in $23.8 million. China led the way with $16.1 million, followed by India at $3.6 million and Taiwan, Lee's home market, at $2.2 million.

Fox is also the foreign distributor on "Lincoln." Its profoundly American subject matter and thoughtful tone — a big part of its appeal in the U.S. — could make it a tricky sell in many parts of the world. Fox executives are confident they can market the film effectively, particularly with some awards afterglow. And they've had some recent experience with films about the 16th president, releasing “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” overseas earlier this year.

The irony of distributing two wildly different films about Abe Lincoln — in “Vampire Hunter,” the Great Emancipator beheads the undead with an ax — hasn't been lost on Fox executives. They joked that the timing will be critical for their “Lincoln” rollout, which will be in January, at the peak of awards season.

“If we went out too soon with 'Lincoln,' people in some countries would think it’s a sequel and wonder where the ax went,” one Fox executive joked.  Kidding aside, Fox will be happy if its more pedigreed “Lincoln” can match the overseas numbers of the genre-bending historical-vampire mash-up. It’s made $75 million overseas after disappointing domestically.

Hollis thinks “Lincoln” may do better overseas than some expect and not just because of awards prestige.

“In many of these countries, where there is political turmoil, it could be extraordinarily timely,” he said. ”Great people and great leaders making people and countries better is a pretty universal theme.”