How 11-Time Oscar Nominee ‘Poor Things’ Got Rich at the Global Box Office

When deciding whether make Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, Searchlight Pictures and parent company Disney believed the movie would be able to earn north of $100 at the global box office. After all, the project was reuniting Lanthimos with Emma Stone, one of Hollywood’s on-fire actresses who had starred in the filmmaker’s Oscar-nominated The Favourite, while he himself had developed a cult following. But when execs saw the completed film, some had their doubts, according to one source close to the project.

Would moviegoers embrace a genre-bending, Victorian-set tale about a Frankenstein-like doctor who puts a baby’s brain inside the dying mother’s body, only to unleash a woman with blissfully innocent mindset that thinks nothing of masturbating in front of others or spitting out a mouthful of food in a swanky restaurant. She embarks on a hedonistic adventure with a debauched lawyer — her word for sex is “furious jumping” — but the woes of the real world begin creeping in when she witnesses poverty and suffering. She steals her lover’s money to help those she saw, and is unruffled when they are left destitute and homeless so becomes a kind-hearted prostitute to make a living. Ultimately, the tale comes full circle and she’s a full participant in a life of her choosing.

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Heading into Oscar weekend, Poor Things has cleared more than $105 million and counting at the global box office, making it the top-grossing limited release of 2023 and Lanthimos’ top-grossing film ever after surpassing the $95.6 million earned worldwide by The Favourite, his absurdist historical comedy starring Olivia Colman as Queen Anne.

Poor Things heads into Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony with 11 nominations, the most of any film behind Oppenheimer’s 13. Stone is considered a frontrunner alongside Lily Gladstone (Killers of the Flower Moon) for best actress, although many believe Gladstone has the edge. It’s also up for best picture and best director. But the real victory could be the boost it’s giving the struggling art house box office, $100 million or more is akin to a tentpole making $1 billion (OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration).

Among the best-picture contenders at tomorrow’s ceremony, it ranks No. 4 in terms of both domestic and global ticket sales behind Barbie ($1.44 billion), Oppenheimer ($958 million) and Killers of the Flower Moon ($158.2 million).

Poor Things wasn’t an easy sell.

“We always wanted and hoped for Poor Things to deliver over $100 million, but there are clearly no guarantees in the current marketplace anymore, especially for more sophisticated and original fare,” says Tony Chambers, Disney’s head of global theatrical distribution. “It is a testament to the strength and quality of the movie, the publicity campaign and the tactical roll-out strategy that after a modest start we are now on track to ultimately hit $115 million globally.”

Rebecca Kearey, Searchlight’s chief of international and business operations, says the first key win from a marketing perspective was taking the movie to Venice Film Festival, which always provides a good gauge as to the mindset of foreign critics and writers.

“I sat through the first press screening and noticed that the Italian press and the international press were really picking up on the humor. There was a lot of laughter in that first press screening, and I felt very gratified. This film indeed has a lot of humor, but it’s also a Yorgos movie. There’s dark, there’s light, there’s drama, there’s humor, there’s all this stuff going on, and you just don’t know how the line is going to be straddled by the media.”

One challenge for Poor Things in Venice was the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, which meant its stars couldn’t attend. Instead, the director and his department heads were on duty 24/7. From Venice, Searchlight and Lanthimos raced to the Telluride Film Festival. (Stone turned heads by attending the fest as a fan). And by the time Poor Things opened in December, it had played at 40 international film festivals (the cast didn’t become available until the strike ended Nov. 9).

After seeing how the Italians had reacted at Venice, the studio arranged for other events there. It paid off. Italy has tied with the U.K. in terms of tickets sales — the film has earned north of $9 million in each country — and it’s expected to become the top-grossing territory this weekend or next. Whereas the lion’s share of The Favourite’s foreign gross, or $21 million, came from the U. K., in general, Poor Things has done more business across much of the rest of Europe and parts of Latin America.

“Yorgos has built a fantastical world that has a Southern European sensibility. It’s got a Salvador Dali-like feel,” Kearey says.

And Poor Things has made more than $5 million in Mexico (compared to $773,000 for The Favourite and nearly $3.5 million in his native Greece, a best ever for one of Lanthimos’ films.

At Venice, Poor Things won The Golden Lion, as both Searchlight’s The Shape of Water and Nomandland did before going on to win the Oscar for best picture. This year, however, all odds are on Oppenheimer taking top honors. But Poor Things’ box office victory is no small matter, and is boost for Searchlight as David Greenbaum, the specialty studio’s president, takes over Sean Bailey’s old job running Disney’s live-action studio.

“There are certain films that at first glance appear to be obvious Oscar contenders but unlikely candidates for global box office success,” says Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore. “Poor Things is one of those rare films that has ridden the crest of a cultural and box office wave while transcending the fact that it does not boast the most commercial of concepts and yet has become a ‘must see’ experience building momentum all the way into Oscar weekend.”

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