Studios still reserve bucks for tentpoles; Zeitlin reflects on kudos tour

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.

Which brings us to most non-Hollywood of the Oscar nominees — “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” “Beasts” will never get close to the $100 million mark ($15 million is a likely return). In some ways, however, it’s the biggest winner and so is its director, a 30-year old free spirit named Benh Zeitlin.

Zeitlin’s $1.8 million budget came from a nonprofit called Cinereach. In my recent conversations with him, he made it clear he has no intention of making a studio deal, despite his film’s Oscar nomination. Indeed, while directors of other contending films toured the world of five-star hotels to tout their films, Zeitlin trekked to some of the more arcane festivals catering to art house films. “I always wanted to meet Emir Kusturica,” says Zeitlin, so he visited the mountains of Serbia to talk with a band of Eastern European filmmakers.

“There are some amazing collectives of young filmmakers around Europe and other parts of the world,” he says. “Auteurism is fading out. There are lots of us out there who want to work together.”

Promoting “Beasts” worldwide became a sort of traveling fellowship for Zeitlin, funded by local distributors or an occasional festival. Accommodations were not first class, but then Zeitlin’s home base in Louisiana consists of a room on a construction site (he and his sister keep an array of rabbits, ducks and an overweight pig).

Zeitlin, like other filmmakers and actors, basically found the awards circuit an artistic distraction.

“You can’t write when you spend all your time talking about your work and your process,” he reflects. “I wrote music to keep my head together.” But having visited over 20 countries, he feels he has insight into what young people around the world are interested in and want to see.

“The adventure is over and I need to get to work,” Zeitlin says. “When I finish my walk down the red carpet, that is the end of that journey.” He knows what his next film is about but he has no script, no financing, no distribution and no agent. (Graham Taylor at WME will help him put together his funding but has been told not to bring him scripts, actors or other proposals.)

Now that he’s famous, Zeitlin also has to work out his relationships with the DGA, SAG and other creative unions. There are, after all, certain mandates in being “mainstream.” “It’s been a wonderful year for learning and traveling,” says Zeitlin. “Now it’s time to write and start begging for money again.”

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