Sibling rivalry: Paramount bets on True Grit but The Fighter is winning

Studio may regret backing Coen brothers' film over story of boxing family which is now an Oscar contender

What a difference seven days makes. Last weekend family drama The Fighter was a mere arthouse sensation after it launched in four theatres and grossed a little over $300,000. This week, after Paramount expanded the release pattern from four to 2,503 theatres, it added $12.2m to raise the running total after 10 days to $12.6m. The new theatre count puts it in league with the big boys as it settles into its box office run – in fact it's playing a little wider than Sony's new (and already flopping) Reese Witherspoon romcom How Do You Know.

While a $12.2m gross is nothing to write home about from 2,503 theatres, it's no disgrace either – especially when you consider Paramount hasn't thrown as many marketing dollars behind The Fighter as it has invested in True Grit. That's because the studio's top brass made an early bet that True Grit, a Paramount movie, would ultimately be more successful than The Fighter, which the studio is distributing for a fee on behalf of the movie's backers Relativity Media.

They may want to reconsider their priorities following a week that has yielded five Golden Globe and four Screen Actors Guild (SAG) nominations for The Fighter, making it a heavyweight Academy awards contender alongside The King's Speech, The Social Network and, possibly, hopefully, 127 Hours. By comparison the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, rightly or wrongly, completely shut out True Grit (I haven't seen it yet) when it announced the Globes nods last week, while SAG gave it two nominations for Jeff Bridges and the hot young newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.

The Fighter was always going to expand into a wide number of theatres but the nominations, not to mention several awards from US critics groups, make the release strategy so exquisitely timely. And well deserved, too. It's an exuberant ride and without doubt one of the best movies of the year, boasting Oscar-worthy performances from Christian Bale, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams.

Bale is going to push Geoffrey Rush from The King's Speech all the way for the Oscar now. Both the Boston and Washington critics groups anointed the prickly Brit their supporting actor of the year and he goes up against Rush for the Globe and the SAG award. The Oscar nominations are announced on 25 January and it would be staggering if the Academy overlooked either actor because both are magnificent.

Mind you, on the subject of supporting actors, it's a strong category this year. Don't rule out Michael Douglas – an Academy favourite and all-round pro who's battled cancer this year – for reprising his role as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street 2. There's also the UK's Andrew Garfield for The Social Network – a movie American critics absolutely adore –and the gifted Jeremy Renner, the dark horse in the race, who was robbed of the lead actor Oscar this year for The Hurt Locker and is on top form in The Town, a movie Academy voters admire. Melissa Leo and Amy Adams are both terrific in The Fighter and they're the ones to beat in an otherwise soft year for supporting actresses.

Studios don't care about Oscar wins per se: it's often not worth splashing the cash on costly awards campaigns for the prestige factor alone. What the studios and their corporate parents are interested in is the established fact that an Academy award/Golden Globe nomination for a major category can boost a movie's ticket sales by roughly 25% by the end of its box office run. That alone would suggest Paramount might like to place its bets on The Fighter because the awards and nominations will keep on coming and strong word of mouth will ensure it plays through the holiday season. True Grit opens on 22 December. The Academy respects the Coen brothers – and has rewarded them before – but will audiences take it to their hearts?

The story of The Fighter plays out like a gruelling title bout. It took producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman six years to get the movie made. The project was originally set up at Paramount, which went through several regime changes before it decided it couldn't back the movie. By that time director Darren Aronofsky and actors Brad Pitt and Matt Damon had come and gone so Mark Wahlberg took the role of "Irish" Micky Ward, the true-life welterweight boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, who was trained to world title success by his half-brother Dicky Eklund, a crack addict and former professional boxer who once went toe-to-toe with Sugar Ray Leonard.

The east coaster Wahlberg knew Ward growing up and loved the role, so much so that he ended up taking a producer credit and constructed a gym on his property where he would train every day for over four years to get in shape for the part as everybody waited to secure financing for the shoot. Relativity Media eventually bought the project from Paramount, slashed the budget in half to $25m, rewrote the screenplay to focus less on drugs and more on the brothers, and brought in Bale to play Eklund and David O Russell to direct the piece.

When they eventually filmed the movie it took only three days to shoot the fight sequences because Wahlberg had memorised all Ward's moves from the actual fights. Producer David Hoberman told me recently that at the end of the day The Fighter is a love story between two brothers and the family that tries to get in their way. That's a perfect way of describing it. It's also a triumph of independent film that shows once again how a project deemed to be too risky for the studios can be reconstituted outside the system, made for a price, and possess what it takes to compete at the highest level. It's going to be interesting to see how it does in the weeks ahead.

Oh, Disney's Tron: Legacy opened top of the charts on $43.6m, according to studio estimates.

North American top 10, 17-19 December 2010

1. Tron: Legacy, $43.6m. New

2. Yogi Bear, $16.7m. New

3. The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, $12.4m. Total: $42.8m

4. The Fighter, $12.2m. Total: $12.6m

5. The Tourist, $8.7m. Total: $30.8m

6. Tangled, $8.7m. Total: $127.8m

7. Black Swan, $8.3m. Total: $15.7m

8. How Do You Know, $7.6m. New

9. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, $4.8m. Total: $265.5m

10. Unstoppable, $1.8m. Total: $77.3m


Jeremy Kay

The GuardianTramp

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