Several films expected to be serious contenders for February's Academy Awards are already cleaning up with the public, a reversal of recent years, which have seen lesser-seen dramas claim Hollywood's top prize.
Among this year's heaviest hitters Steven Spielberg's biopic Lincoln and Ben Affleck's Iranian hostage drama Argo already are surprise blockbusters. Lincoln has done $132 million, Argo $109 million. And both pictures will likely see a box-office uptick if they earn best-picture nominations.
And other expected contenders are scoring with audiences. The musical Les Miserables and Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti western Django Unchained, both hoping for some academy attention when Oscar nominations come out Jan. 10, had strong opening weekends to begin their awards sprint.
Les Miserables, starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, has done an eye-popping $67 million since its Christmas Day release. Django, starring Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio, has done a surprising $63 million since its debut the same day. Both are likely to crack $100 million, and analysts expect nominations for both films.
"It's a nice convergence of events," says Jeff Bock, chief analyst for industry trackers Exhibitor Relations. "You've got movies that the critics really like, and that the public is flocking to. This is what we hope for in the movies."
Of course, that doesn't mean the academy has caught commercial fever. In the past decade, Oscar has given its top prize to smaller-scaled film, including 2007's No Country for Old Men, which did $75 million, and Crash, which collected just $55 million in 2005. The war drama The Hurt Locker, which took 2009's best-picture Oscar, did $17 million, the lowest-grossing best-picture winner on record.
"The Oscars aren't supposed to be a popularity contest, but box office can affect their decisions, and here we may see tastes aligning," Bock says.
Here's a look at some of this year's expected awards contenders, and how they've fared with the public:
Momentum: Huge. Despite a 2½-hour running time, Spielberg's story of Lincoln's push for the 13th Amendment has been a box-office shocker, nearly ensuring a best-picture nomination.
Momentum: Strong but slowing. Argo was the first serious Oscar contender to make a dent at the box office, and its entry into the nine-digit club (not to mention the rave reviews) will likely be plenty to get it a nomination.
Hopeful: Les Miserables
Momentum: Big and building. The musical stunned analysts by doing more than $30 million its first three days in theaters, and its pace hasn't slowed. Analysts consider a nomination a shoo-in as it burns up the box office.
Momentum: Healthy and growing. Tarantino's ultra-violent films can dissuade some academy members, but Django could be on track to challenge 1994's Pulp Fiction, which earned $108 million and seven Oscar nominations, including best picture and a win for best original screenplay.
Hopeful: Silver Linings Playbook
Momentum: Slow but picking up. This $21 million David Russell film wasn't on many year-end lists, but the drama crossed $27 million this weekend and is earning a reputation as the little art-house pic that could.
Hopeful: Life of Pi
Momentum: Little. Ang Lee's 3-D adaptation of the popular novel is on the bubble with many analysts. The film did a solid $85 million, though it cost $120 million.
"We like to think of this as the time of year when movies no one has seen get all the attention," Bock says. "Not this year."
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)