‘Pan’s’ breaks out of art niche

Audiences take to to surprise hit

Released in a sea of serious Oscar hopefuls, it was surprising when politically themed fantasy “Pan’s Labyrinth” broke through the pack to gross $30 million. But the boffo B.O. is even more surprising given that the violent special effects-laden pic was made in Spanish — becoming the highest grossing Spanish-language pic ever released in the U.S.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” has managed to move beyond its core, expanding to more than 1,100 screens and landing in the top 10 list along with another breakout pic, “The Queen.”

Guillermo del Toro, the director of “Blade II” and “Hellboy,” was offered major studio money to make the pic if he’d shoot it in English, but the helmer refused and went indie.

The movie cost E13.5 million ($19 million), but looks significantly more expensive. Financing collapsed twice and del Toro and his friend Alfonso Cuaron started funding it out of pocket before the film got a greenlight.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” has succeeded because it has managed to bring in a cross-section of auds.

“It has worked among Latino audiences, which is an underserved market, and with the genre audience as well as the arthouse crowd,” notes Picturehouse topper Bob Berney.

“Labyrinth” became Berney’s first hit since he took the reins at Picturehouse two years ago. The pic opened in Gotham simultaneously at a hip Lower East Side arthouse and at a Times Square megaplex. In Los Angeles and Chicago, it went wider to woo Hispanic filmgoers.

After working on the indie breakout “Y tu mama tambien” at IFC Films, Berney says he tapped various opinion makers — including del Toro comrades Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — in the Latino community to support the pic. The company also bought ad time in Spanish-language media.

Picturehouse also made a big push for “Pan’s” at Comic-Con, shipping a mystical tree from the film and filling it with “goop” so fanboys could stick their mitts inside, paralleling a mission carried out in the pic.

Berney also gives credit to del Toro as a tireless promoter of the film.

“Guillermo’s ability to communicate with his audience, to personally sign off on everything day and night was key,” says Berney, adding that they marketed the pic as a fantasy instead of a political piece to court such fans.

Of course, playing primo slots in the Cannes, Toronto and New York film fests didn’t hurt. But another key was the pic’s release date.

Foreseeing the glut of competing studio films headed to theaters in the fall, Berney decided to roll “Pan’s Labyrinth” later in the year, between Christmas and New Year’s.

By New Year’s, movie fans seemed ready to settle into more challenging fare.

“Pan’s” has been slowing down and Berney says he expects the pic to play solidly for a couple more weeks. But Oscar wins could help it surge again. Pic hits DVD in May.

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