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Oscar’s Favorites Find Favor With Wider Audiences

Studios still reserve their bucks for tentpoles

A funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars this year: All the contending movies turned out to be hits. And studio mavens are trying to figure out what this means.

The awards competition in recent years has focused on films the general public has largely spurned. In 2012, only one nominated film had passed the $100 million mark in the U.S. — “The Help.” But this year several artistically ambitious films have turned into worldwide winners, according to Andrew Stewart, Variety’s box office guru, led by “Life of Pi,” which has grossed $578 million, followed by “Les Miserables” at $397 million.

“Candidly, it’s changing the way I look at the worldwide film market,” says Graham King, who’s been among the most courageous of the global players (he put up half the money for “Argo,” even though no one ever seems to include him on the “thank-you” list).

King, who’s prepping a film of durable tuner “Jersey Boys,” has reason to be pleased by the global acceptance of “Les Mis,” but he’s also pleased that a serious period piece like “Lincoln” grossed $176 million in the U.S and $60 million abroad. Even a tough political thriller like “Zero Dark Thirty” is approaching the $100 million mark.

By contrast, “The Hurt Locker,” from the “Zero” team, hit the wall at $50 million worldwide despite its Oscar win.

So if Graham King may be looking at the film audience in a different light, does that mean the major studios will follow suit?

Not necessarily. While the major studios distributed the top contenders, their producers had to pass the hat to raise their financing. Sony distributed “Zero,” but Megan Ellison put up the production dollars. Even Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” had no fewer than four funding sources.

The studios, true to form, channel their money into the tentpoles, and none of those ever figure in the Oscar race.

The Academy Awards may be Hollywood’s party, but they’re never about Hollywood pictures.

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