It was just before 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night in Los Feliz, and the assorted filmgoers that had gathered to see "Black Swan" sounded as if they were attending different movies.
Nas Moinee, 23, had come for the dancing and the costumes and was dreading the film's scares. Peter Garcia, a longhaired, ball-cap-wearing 12-year-old attending with his mother, said he was looking forward to jumping out of his seat at the movie's spooky scenes.
And while Shawna Joplin, 28, had bought a ticket because she heard about a bravura performance from star Natalie Portman, her companion, Greg Richmond, 32, came because his friends told him about an explicit sex scene between Portman and costar Mila Kunis. "This movie's about ballet?" he said. He didn't seem to be joking.
"Black Swan" is the surprise breakout of the movie awards season, sneaking up on the Hollywood establishment like "Slumdog Millionaire" did two years ago or "The Blind Side" did last year. Produced for a paltry $13 million, the R-rated Fox Searchlight release already has sold $64 million worth of tickets and is expected to hit at least $100 million in North America alone (the film has not yet opened internationally). Last week, "Black Swan" was the No. 2 movie in the country, outgrossing "Little Fockers" and "Tron: Legacy" — movies with far more advertising and playing in substantially more theaters.
Portman, who studied ballet for more than a year to prepare for the role, has emerged as a front-runner for this year's lead actress Oscar. The awards parade for "Black Swan" could begin at Sunday night's Golden Globes ceremony, where Portman, Kunis and director Darren Aronofsky are each nominated, as is the movie (for best dramatic picture).
At a time when Hollywood studios are fixated on cookie-cutter movies with built-in audience recognition, "Black Swan" is a hit from the entirely opposite direction: dream-like, ambiguous and even polarizing (The Times' Kenneth Turan called it "high-art trash"; Chicago-based critic Roger Ebert praised its "passionate intensity, gloriously and darkly absurd"). Depending on whom you ask, the movie is a psychological thriller, a character study of a young woman coming unglued, a portrait of the rarefied world of ballet or a reality-bending horror film. At one publicity screening, Aronofsky asked the audience to raise their hands and vote on whether they regarded it as an art-house film or a genre movie. The tally was 50-50.
"I think this is the kind of movie that's so open to interpretation that a lot of how you view it will depend on what kind of baggage you come into it with," Mark Heyman, the "Black Swan" screenwriter and Aronofsky's producing partner, said in an interview, adding that after one screening a woman speculated to him that it was a Christian allegory.
Even Portman said she wasn't sure exactly what kind of movie "Black Swan" would turn out to be. During production "I didn't know I was making a horror movie," she said at recent publicity screening, perhaps only half-kidding.
Aronofsky's film is the story of an insecure and almost childlike ballerina, Nina Sayers (Portman), starring in a high-profile New York performance of "Swan Lake." Pressured by her live-in mother ( Barbara Hershey) and the ballet company director (French actor Vincent Cassel), she begins experiencing what may or may not be delusions, including her fear that fellow dancer Lily (Kunis) is out to sabotage her. In an increasingly baroque series of scenes (including the much-discussed sexual encounter between the two ballerinas) the movie builds to a bloody but ambiguous climax set to a thunderous rendition of Tchaikovsky's score.
In a season when even dramas such as "The King's Speech" and "The Fighter" are leavened with humor, "Black Swan" stands out for its unrelenting intensity. "Darren Aronofsky is making melodrama cool again," said Claudia Lewis, president of production at studio Fox Searchlight.
It even raises the question of whether there's a larger audience for original, unpredictable films than the studios may believe.
But parsing the film's success has proved difficult even for the people involved in it.
"I get the teenage girl part of the audience because it's a coming-of-age story about a girl becoming a woman," Aronofsky said. "But older people are seeing it too. My mother lives in a development in West Palm Beach and she brought 40 people from the development to see it and they loved it. I don't know if even I understand it."
Aronofsky is an unlikely director for a box-office breakthrough. An auteur of critically admired films such as "Requiem for a Dream," his biggest success previously was 2008's " The Wrestler," which grossed $26 million in the U.S. and earned Mickey Rourke an Oscar nomination. "It's been a little strange," the director said. "I watched the 'Saturday Night Live' skit with Jim Carrey this week [that parodied a scene from the movie] and I couldn't believe it. They went to such detail … as though the writers assumed most people had seen the movie."
After toying with the idea of a ballet film for nearly a decade, Aronofsky and his producing partners struggled for several years to get financing for "Black Swan." It finally landed at Fox Searchlight, the 20th Century Fox subsidiary that also brought out "Slumdog Millionaire," which agreed to finance the movie with Cross Creek Pictures, a film-finance company backed by Louisiana oil money. Along the way, the budget was pared down significantly and the production start date was pushed back several times.
Production began in late 2009, and the tight schedule and modest budget made for what was said to be an unusually rigorous shoot. The director's exacting approach added to the intensity. "If you're a lazy actor, don't work with Darren Aronofsky," Hershey said recently, with a hint of droll understatement.
Like many specialty films, "Black Swan" began its rollout on the fall festival circuit, starting Sept. 1 at the Venice Film Festival. But Searchlight didn't launch any publicity for the movie until Aug. 17, when it released a poster featuring Portman made up as the swan queen and a trailer that began with a sense of quiet doom and slowly crescendoed to a jolting finale.
The viral impact was immediate. Within 48 hours, the trailer had been viewed 3 million times on the Internet. "The biggest mystery to me is how people even knew about it," said Stephen Gilula, Fox Searchlight co-president.
Packed screenings at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals followed and, by October, tutorials on how girls could make up their faces to resemble Portman's character were popping up on YouTube. Heyman said he knew something was afoot when, wandering the Halloween parade in New York's Greenwich Village, he saw numerous "Black Swan" costumes — six weeks before the movie was even released.
In the meantime, the film was building other unlikely constituencies. After Chris Alexander, editor of the horror movie fan magazine Fangoria, saw "Black Swan" at the Toronto International Film Festival, he was confident the picture would appeal to his readers and he put it on his cover. "It was one of the most terrifying films I had seen in years," Alexander said.
But as the movie's Dec. 3 limited release date approached, producers worried "Black Swan" had peaked too soon. "There was a three-month period where we kept saying, 'We've got to get it out there,'" said Brian Oliver, producer and Cross Creek president.
His worries proved unfounded. The movie opened in 18 theaters, primarily in large urban areas, and sold out most shows that weekend. Most independent films usually slow down as they branch out of the big cities, but "Black Swan's" train has only picked up speed. This weekend it is playing in more than 2,000 theaters.
A joking reference to the film in an episode of "30 Rock," the "Saturday Night Live" skit featuring Carrey in a black tutu and the celebrity press' intensive coverage of Portman's recently announced pregnancy (with her fiance, "Black Swan" choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who also appears in the film), underline the how the movie has become part of the national pop-culture conversation.
"One of the advantages of our release pattern is that we never bombarded the audience with $30 million of paid advertising in a two-week period," said Nancy Utley, Searchlight co-president. "As a result, they picked up the mantle and have been doing much of the work for us."
The film resembles another original-concept, altered-consciousness film, Christopher Nolan's "Inception," which was a major hit this summer. Although that movie cost hundreds of millions more than "Black Swan" to make and market, it too was driven by a passionate fan base, and drew many casual filmgoers who wanted to see what the fuss was all about. (Aronofsky actually showed "Black Swan" to Nolan after it was completed.)
Yet despite the massive success of these two films, it's unclear if they will change the mind-set of an entertainment industry still preoccupied with sequels, reboots and comic-book adaptations. "I hope it will make it easier for someone to blaze a new path," Lewis said. "But I don't know if any one filmmaker can change the landscape today."