'Pan's' defies odds on road to success

On paper, “Pan’s Labyrinth” — a Spanish language fantasy pic set against the backdrop of fascist Spain doesn’t seem like an instant hit. But the pic sure seemed attractive on Oscar ballots: Pic took home three statuettes Sunday night: art direction, makeup and cinematography.

Though the dark pic may seem to tackle obscure subject matter, its helmer Guillermo del Toro has turned in more mainstream commercial fare in the past, including “Hell Boy” and “Blade II.” And part of the reason for the pic’s success came from the helmer’s devoted fantasty fanboy base, as well as the Latino and arthouse crowds.

Del Toro had the option of making the f/x-heavy pic as a bigger budget affair for a studio, but turned down any offers that wouldn’t allow him to shoot the pic in Spanish. Instead, pic’s budget was set at about $19 million, enabling it to be a success at a more modest level.

It has taken in $30.5 million so far.

But Picturehouse topper Bob Berney used a template from Alfonso Cuaron’s Spanish lingo breakout, “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” which he distributed at IFC Films, to help “Pan’s” breakout, by screening the pic for Latino auds to build buzz.

Picturehouse also targeted the fantasy crowd, which has helped the pic crossover as a specialty hit. Del Toro was on hand at Comic-Con in San Diego last year to push the pic with his fan faithful, and Picturehouse shipped parts of the set there to pump interest.

Pic then also capitalized on the arthouse crowd, which responded to it as one of the year’s best-reviewed films.

Wins for “Pan’s” also mark a needed breakthrough for its distributor Picturehouse, a joint venture between HBO Film and New Line that launched with fanfare, by hiring Berney, but found hits hard to come by with initial entries to the marketplace including “Fur” and “The Thing About My Folks.”

“Pan’s” became Picturehouse’s widest release to date, on 1,143 screens.

Making a return trip to the Oscar arena, Berney had similar luck in the past bringing acquisitions that are seemingly tough sells to the winners’ circle. At Newmarket, he oversaw distribution of “Monster” and “Whale Rider,” among others.

Del Toro is part of a cadre of Mexican countrymen taking the town by storm this year, including Cuaron (“Children of Men”) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”).

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