On golden ‘Swan’

Pic approaching $100 mil mark at domestic b.o.

Fast approaching the $100 million mark at the domestic box office, Fox Searchlight’s “Black Swan” is poised to become the top U.S. release of 2010 for parent studio 20th Century Fox.

Pic’s success is impressive by any standard — a thriller set in the world of ballet was not an easy sell — but it’s especially notable at a time when the studios are relying on known brands and easy-to-digest loglines.

“I think the largest factor in the film’s success is originality,” Searchlight prexy Nancy Utley told Variety. “People love to go to the movies and see something they can’t put in a little box,” she added.

“I think the whole year of independent film in the best picture category is showing that you can make commercial artsy films at a budget that can perform at studio levels,” Brian Oliver, one of “Swan’s” three producers, told Variety. “I’m more surprised that it’s going to hit the $100 million domestic mark than by what it’s doing overseas.”

The first “Swan” trailer appeared online in August 2010 and drew 3 million views in just 48 hours.

“We could immediately see that something special was happening,” Utley said of the online sampling tally, which has grown to 25 million.

Early testing of the movie showed it to be most popular with the under-25 crowd, especially women, an indication borne out when the film opened. “I wasn’t surprised that young females liked the film,” Oliver said. “I was surprised that they’d be our No. 1 demographic.”

To help broaden the film’s appeal to men, Utley said Searchlight started marketing the film as a date-night movie of sorts by assembling TV ads for “co-viewing periods.”

“We didn’t go out and buy sports programs, but we did go out and buy ’30 Rock,’?” Utley said, adding that Searchlight targeted most of the popular network shows. “We were able to put together TV spots that were attractive to both men and women.”

Searchlight adjusted the creative elements of its TV campaign depending on where each ad was placed. For spots aimed at those swayed by a festival pedigree and the traditional arthouse aud, ads were quote- or accolade-driven. For the 18-34 target of potential co-viewers, trailers played up the mystery and suspense with dramatic dance sequences and hints at the strange transformation of Natalie Portman’s character.

Though the film had its world preem at the Venice film fest, Searchlight banked on buzz from the pic’s North American performance transferring over to court auds in foreign markets. The studio unspooled the film in Germany, Australia, Denmark, Israel, and Switzerland on Jan. 20, grossing a healthy $6.7 million opening weekend in those territories, followed by Austria, Poland and the U.K. the following day.

Oliver gives much credit to Portman for bringing in auds thanks to her following among young women and the buzz her perf generated early on with critics, but he said the film appeals to European sensibilities on a deeper level.

“The scenes of the ballet and the struggle for art are very big themes in Europe and outside of the U.S … (and) we have a very European dismal ending,” Oliver said of the film’s thematically dark final scenes.

“Swan” took more than a decade to make from the time Darren Aronofsky first met with some of the film’s producers. Ultimately, Oliver’s Cross Creek Pictures signed on to co-finance the project before approaching Fox Searchlight to co-finance the project 50/50. Searchlight signed on a few weeks before production began in December 2009.

“The film was a little bit rich for our blood in terms of budget when we first looked at it,” Utley said, noting that Cross Creek’s financing helped put the film in line with Searchlight’s business plan.

“It’s one of those things where everyone in town passed on it,” Oliver said.

Until “Swan,” Searchlight’s parent studio Fox was having something of a down year. Its highest grossers were “Date Night,” with $98 million, and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” which is Fox’s top domestic earner to date with $102.7 million. While both “Narnia” and “Swan” were released at the beginning of December, “Swan” is poised to eclipse “Narnia” some time in the next two weeks. Fox’s 2009 “Avatar,” however, still stands as the studio’s highest earner in 2010 with $408 million domestically.

“Swan” also brought the studio a lot of bang for its buck.

At $13 million, the film’s budget was roughly 8% of the $155 million for “Narnia.” The psychological thriller has also earned critical acclaim and five Oscar noms, including berths for its director and star.

Both films have performed well for Fox overseas. “Narnia” has cumed close to $300 million worldwide, with the most love coming from France and the U.K. “Knight and Day” comes in second at $174 million with large grosses in Japan, the U.K. and Ireland. Japan also took the lead in contributing to the $126 million international gross of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”

“Swan,” with a $50 million overseas take so far and several territories yet to open, leads the pack of recent indie films produced on a shoestring that have gone on to garner both box office and critical success (think “Winter’s Bone”).

To hone the pic’s marketing approach overseas, Searchlight made a few tweaks to “Swan’s” international campaign. Subject to less stringent censorship abroad, the studio was able to emphasize the sexiness of the film more than it could in the U.S.

Its main overseas “Swan” poster also features a different photo of Portman, one without the heavy stage makeup, to help boost her recognition factor in promoting the film.

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