Hollywood is basking in one of those rare years when some of its biggest box-office successes are also vying for Oscars. And the biggest hit among the nine best picture nominees is the one many thought would fail to connect with audiences — let alone turn a profit.
Director Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" has so far generated $570.9 million in worldwide ticket sales. That trumps its two highest-grossing Oscar competitors — "Les Misérables" at $359.7 million and "Django Unchained" with $342.6 million.
What's notable about the surprise success of "Pi" is that industry insiders considered the risky 20th Century Fox-based movie a long shot at best, deriding it as a $120-million art film that lacked marketability on several fronts. The movie centers on an Indian boy, Piscine "Pi" Patel, who survives a shipwreck and becomes trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.
"This is one of the most unexpected hits I have ever seen," said box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com. "It just took the world by storm — this was a global phenomenon."
On the surface, the deck seemed stacked against "Pi." The two-hour-long epic stars an unknown actor and deals with issues ranging from spirituality and death to cannibalism. Some also considered its ambiguous ending to be a handicap.
But the film also had its strengths. Helmed by Oscar-winning director Lee, the 3-D film drew critical praise and garnered 11 Oscar nominations, just one less than "Lincoln." It was based on a popular novel by Yann Martel that has sold more than 10 million copies around the world. Also, in a season packed with adult movies such as "Django Unchained," it was one of the only offerings for a family audience, while also being lauded by the critics.
By far the chief factor in the picture's box-office success was its appeal to overseas audiences, underscoring the increasing importance of the international market, which now accounts for about 70% of theatrical revenue. As of Friday, the movie has collected $461.6 million overseas, including $90.8 million in China.
The strong returns — more than 80% of its ticket sales have come from outside of America — have validated a rigorous promotional effort that Lee embarked on abroad and Fox's use of region-specific marketing tailored to the sensibilities of moviegoers in different locales.
While that sort of marketing strategy is by no means unique to "Pi," the film may have stood more to gain from the effort than other pictures because of its unique tone and themes. Key to the campaign was the use of distinct trailers and print advertisements in different markets.
A trailer focusing on Pi's adventures on the lifeboat was used in Latin American countries to appeal to family audiences because films there are more dependent on those moviegoers, said Paul Hanneman, co-president of international distribution for Fox. Another trailer emphasizing Pi's personal story with the use of flashbacks was deployed in parts of Europe to draw sophisticated art house audiences.
The print advertising campaign was even more varied. A film poster featuring a prominent image of the tiger was featured in several Asian countries, including China, where the animal is a symbolic creature.
In Japan, print ads framed the story in a more emotional context, showing Pi and the tiger on the lifeboat surrounding by a frothy sea. In India, advertisements played up the film's local cast.
"Because it had so many different elements to it, it wasn't the easiest sell in the world, like a lot of big movies are," said Fox executive Elizabeth Gabler, who shepherded the project through its lengthy development and production process after optioning the book in 2002. "There was awareness of it, but it's not like [Marvel's superhero hit] 'Avengers.' That's why we reached out in so many different ways."
The film played particularly well in China, with audiences embracing Lee, who is from Taiwan, as one of their own, said Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman Jim Gianopulos.
"Ang was welcomed as a hero," Gianopulos said. "And it resonated culturally and emotionally."
The movie's box-office performance in China, where like most foreign films it was limited to a one-month run by the Chinese government, was second only to its $109.3-million domestic take.
Lee, who won an Oscar for 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," an unconventional story about two cowboys who fall in love, said "Pi" resonated with audiences in China and elsewhere in Asia because people there are comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty in films. A twist in "Pi's" final minutes could lead audiences to question much of the film's story — a turn that Lee said has led moviegoers in Asian countries to see the picture multiple times and parse it endlessly.
Indeed, Robert Cain, a producer and film consultant who specializes in the Chinese market, said anecdotal evidence suggests the film received a boost from repeat viewings in China. "Chinese consumers like to look for the hidden meaning behind things," he said.
Ultimately, Lee may have been the film's biggest selling point overseas. Admitting "Pi" was a "hard sell" with moviegoers, the 58-year-old director committed to a lengthy international publicity tour in support of the film. He worked 15-hour days, lecturing at film schools, giving interviews to journalists, and presiding over screenings of the movie. A 10-day sweep through Asia that began in early November tested the director.
"That was the toughest time," he said. "I had just delivered the film; I was exhausted and didn't have time for physical and emotional rest. I didn't know how the movie worked, so I didn't know how to talk about it. I was feeling almost ill."
"Pi" also did strong business in places such as Germany ($25.7 million), Mexico ($19.9 million), Taiwan ($17.5 million) and India ($16.6 million) — all countries that Lee visited. Hanneman said Lee's efforts were instrumental, adding, "It's rare that we have anybody travel on this sort of level to all of these markets."
And in recent weeks Lee has emerged as a dark-horse contender for the director Oscar, with some pundits suggesting the category has developed into a two-horse race between him and "Lincoln" director Steven Spielberg.
With the film's haul of Oscar nominations cementing it as a critical success, "Pi" has become the rare hit that rivals in an industry not necessarily known for mutual admiration are willing to praise.
"I think Fox did a fantastic job on this movie internationally, but this is also a very, very special movie," said Sony Pictures Entertainment Co-Chairman Amy Pascal. "Ang knows how to tell a story and tell it like nobody else does."