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Most of best picture Oscar picks are expected to be moneymakers

'Zero Dark Thirty,' which opens this weekend, is poised to join the four nominees that have topped $100 million domestically. 'Life of Pi' is nearing that mark too.

January 10, 2013|By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • “Zero Dark Thirty” is expected to gross about $20 million this weekend. The cast includes Chris Pratt, center, and Joel Edgerton, right.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is expected to gross about $20 million… (Jonathan Olley, Columbia…)

"Zero Dark Thirty" is poised to join a bumper crop of box office successes among the Academy Award nominees for best picture.

Four of this year's nine nominated movies have grossed more than $100 million in the U.S. and Canada, the first time that has happened in three years and particularly remarkable given that none is a big-budget tentpole.

Another nominee, "Life of Pi," is just short of $100 million domestically but has already surpassed $300 million overseas, making one of the year's riskiest productions a surprise success.

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After racking up a healthy $5.2 million in limited release over the last three weeks, the military thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" will play nationwide this weekend. The timing was chosen by distributor Sony Pictures in an attempt to ride the momentum of Thursday's Oscar nominations and this Sunday's Golden Globes Awards ceremony, where the movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is nominated for four prizes.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is expected to open to about $20 million this weekend, according to people who have seen pre-release surveys. That should put it in a tight race with the historical action movie "Gangster Squad" and horror parody "A Haunted House."

Given its production budget of about $45 million, "Zero Dark" in a good position for success, particularly if audience word of mouth is as strong as reviews have been.

The commercial success of many of the best picture nominees runs counter to the widely held belief in Hollywood that studios are more likely to generate profits from superhero movies and sequels than original, mid-budget dramas.

"The performance of these films bodes well for moviemaking choices in the future," said Jim Gianopulos, chairman of "Life of Pi" studio 20th Century Fox.

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That's particularly true in a year when several expensive movies turned out to be massive flops, including "John Carter," "Battleship" and "Dark Shadows."

"People shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that big equals popular," said Stacey Snider, chief executive of DreamWorks Studios.

DreamWorks' "Lincoln," directed by Snider's DreamWorks partner Steven Spielberg, is the most successful of the best picture nominees, having grossed $146 million as of Wednesday.

The best picture nominees are hits in part because they were made on relatively modest budgets. With the exception of the epic "Django" and 3-D "Life of Pi," all of the movies to get the nod cost less than $70 million to make.

"I think the whole business has recognized that there is a market for these kind of movies, but they have to be made responsibly," said Adam Fogelson, chairman of "Les Miserables" studio Universal Pictures. "On this [Oscars] list you have examples of movies where, on top of their being great and audiences loving them, the filmmakers and studios worked together to bring them in at a rational price point."

OSCARS 2013: Complete list | Snubs & surprises |Reactions | Ballot | Trivia | Oscar Watch | TimelineFull coverage

The growth of the international market has also proved crucial to the economic rationale of these movies.

"Life of Pi," based on the bestselling book, has particular appeal overseas because of its international setting, multicultural cast and 3-D effects.

"Les Miserables" has already taken in $88.2 million and has yet to open in many key markets, including Britain, where it is expected to have a big launch this weekend.

Producer Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures was able to finance "Zero Dark Thirty" in part by selling many of the international distribution rights to Universal.

On the home front, the weekend's biggest gamble is "Gangster Squad," which cost Warner Bros. and partner Village Roadshow Pictures about $60 million to make. Interest in the movie — which stars Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — appears to be even among men and women, young and old. However, reviews have been weak.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is expected to attract an older audience, while "A Haunted House" is expected to appeal to young fans of the horror films that it spoofs. Open Road Films is distributing the low-budget production, which stars and was co-written by Marlon Wayans.

ben.fritz@latimes.com

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