Pan’s Labyrinth: Anatomy of Success

Released in December among serious Oscar contenders, it was surprising when the political fantasy-fable “Pan's Labyrinth” broke through the pack to gross $30 million–and still running strong. The film's nomination for 6 Oscars, including Best Foreign-Language, has helped a lot.

But the boxoffice success is even more surprising given that the violent special effects-laden movie was made in Spanish — becoming the highest grossing Spanish-language picture ever released in the U.S.

“Pan's Labyrinth” moved succcessfully beyond its art house core, expanding to more than 1,100 screens and landing in the top 10 list, along with another breakout picture, “The Queen,” which is nominated for Best Picture and other Oscars.

Guillermo del Toro, the director of “Blade II” and “Hellboy,” was offered major studio money to make the movie–contingent that he shot it in English, but reflecting his artistic integrity, the helmer refused and went indie.

“Pan's Labyrinth cost aroud E13.5 million ($19 million), but looks significantly more expensive due to its sophisticated production values and special effects.

Financing collapsed twice and del Toro and his friend Alfonso Cuaron, who's the film's producer, started funding it out of pocket before the film got a greenlight.

“Pan's Labyrinth” has succeeded because it has managed to bring in a cross-section of audiences.
“It has worked among Latino audiences, which is an underserved market, and with the genre audience as well as the arthouse crowd,” notes Picturehouse topper Bob Berney.

“Labyrinth” became Berney's first hit since he took the reins at Picturehouse two years ago. The movie opened in Gotham simultaneously at a hip Lower East Side arthouse and at a Times Square megaplex. In Los Angeles and Chicago, it went wider to woo Hispanic filmgoers.

After working on the indie breakout “Y tu mama tambien” at IFC Films, Berney says he tapped various opinion makers–including del Toro comrades Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu–in the Latino community to support the picture. The company also bought ad time in Spanish-language media.

Picturehouse also made a big push for “Pan's Labyrinth” at Comic-Con, shipping a mystical tree from the film and filling it with “goop” so fanboys could stick their mitts inside, paralleling a mission carried out in the pic.

Berney also gives credit to del Toro as a tireless promoter of the film. “Guillermo's ability to communicate with his audience, to personally sign off on everything day and night was key,” says Berney, adding that they marketed the picture as a fantasy instead of a political piece to court such fans.

Of course, playing in the Cannes, Toronto and New York film fests didn't hurt. But another key was the picture's release date. Foreseeing the glut of competing studio films headed to theaters in the fall, Berney decided to roll “Pan's Labyrinth” later in the year, between Christmas and New Year's.

“Pan's” has been slowing down and Berney says he expects the picture to play solidly for a couple more weeks–particularly if it wins the Best Foreign-Language Oscar. Such a major win could help it surge again. Right now, it's expected to come out on DVD in May, which would mark one year since its world premiere in the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.