I complained a week ago that America had consistently ignored Oscar-caliber films and were discouraging their commercial viability through selecting Bedtime Stories, Marley and Me and Yes Men instead. However, there's light at the end of the tunnel. Gran Torino, in its first weekend of wide release grossed $29 million and beat Bride Wars to take first place. Gran Torino nearly doubled Bride Wars' total and it was playing in 400 fewer theaters. I also wasn't paying too much attention to per-screen average earlier because I hadn't noticed that Benjamin Buttons was slowly chugging its way up the ladder to a very handsome $92 million. Once the Oscars are announced and Ben Buttons makes the final five, one can expect to see it get an extra boost from that as well.
In terms of Gran Torino taking first place at the box office. It's hard to put in perspective how unlikely that was. $29.8 million is more than healthy for a December opening. Tom Cruise pre-Oprah gate didn't gross that much with his Oscar contender The Last Samurai and neither did Will Smith in his Oscar-buzz film Pursuit of Happiness. I could read you a long list of oscar contenders with crossover mainstream appeal that never reached that number on opening weekend, but suffice it to say, it's pretty much everything except Lord of the Rings and King Kong.
In addition, Clint Eastwood while a legend of Hollywood for sure, does not have the box office draw that Brad Pitt, Leo DiCaprio, or even Owen Wilson or Anne Hathaway enjoy. The cinematically literate crowd knows of him more as a director (consider that he only appeared as an actor in 1 of his last 5 critically acclaimed films), the non-cinematically literate crowd thinks of him as an old guy who used to be in Westerns 40 years ago. There could very well be a group of teenagers today who don't really know of him at all. And yet, somehow the 15-28 year old demographic that supposedly leads the movie industry flocked to see him in droves.
In a way, that's what the film was about: Clint Eastwood as an octegenerian had his toughest battle because he was facing teenage hoodlums who were raised on rap and MTV and not only were they unafraid of him, they didn't even know who he was. Well, the numbers indicate a large percentage of America is getting to know who Clint Eastwood is in his old age. When was the last time an 80-year old beat a hot 20-something A-lister (Anne Hathaway) at the box office? I'm pretty sure the answer is never.
Without Clint Eastwood's involvement, the story would never have even been greenlighted by a major distributor without some success at Sundance beforehand. Gran Torino's story about a cranky old veteran who copes with the changing demographics of his rustbelt suburb by befriending his immigrant neighbors and defending them from gang violence, is the kind of plot that usually has to gradually warm up to an audience. The film made the top 10 films of the year list for AFI and made it's way onto a few other critics' lists (it's in my top 2, i'll say that), but did not have the kind of mass Oscar buzz to turn people into the theater.