They’re winning awards, they also made money

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SummaryHow accurate is Zero Dark Thirty?

How accurate is Zero Dark Thirty? Is Lincoln an epic of historical recreation or a high school history lesson? What did you think of Django Unchained? Can we get Anne Hathaway something to eat, already?

As a crop, this year’s nine best picture nominees have been one of the most talk-provoking, Op-Ed-generating bunches in recent Oscar history. From Argo to Life of Pi, they’ve largely been popular at the box office too.

The movies have been debated, criticised, mulled over and tweeted. Above all, they’ve been relevant.

That hasn’t always been the case, particularly in years where most best-picture candidates have struggled to surpass $100 million at the domestic box office. Last year, of the nine nominees, only The Help managed to pass that threshold. This year, five have (Argo, Les Miserables, Lincoln, Django and Life of Pi) and two more are very close (Zero Dark Thirty and Silver Linings Playbook).

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi has proved an international juggernaut, approaching $600 million worldwide.

Part of what makes this year’s class remarkable is that they aren’t obvious box-office draws. Westerns are supposed to be dated. Excessively detailed stories about congressional politics aren’t usually popcorn-munching hits. Religious-minded films centered on an unknown young actor and a digital tiger adrift on a boat don’t typically steamroll like a superhero blockbuster.

“The movies worked,” Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of the Weinstein Co, which released Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained, said at a recent Producers’ Guild of America event. He called the best picture nominees “the best collection of movies we’ve had in 20 years” and claimed the studios have a new boldness to “just go for it”.

Warner Bros has Argo, Universal has Les Miserables, Disney has Lincoln, Fox has Life of Pi and Sony has Zero Dark Thirty. Several of those films were produced with outside financing, but they all benefited from the strong distribution and marketing of a major studio.

It all points to strong health for Hollywood. “The good news is there’s a robust body of movie goers seeing quality films. That’s the real story,” said Peter Guber, the veteran producer and chairman of Mandalay Entertainment who produced the best picture-winning Rain Man, among others.

That idiosyncratic movies by talented filmmakers from Ang Lee to Quentin Tarantino can be so lucrative, albeit not on the scale of the $1.1 billion-making Skyfall, suggests that risk-taking can pay off.

At a time when teenager-targeted extravaganzas increasingly crowd out quality films for adults, this year’s best picture films made the argument for being a little daring.

“Every movie is unknown,” said Lee. “If it’s known, then no studio would lose money.”

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