LOS ANGELES -- Lincoln has become Hollywood's latest version of bottled lightning: a critical hit destined for awards attention, buoyed by unexpected commercial support.
How it got there, though, is anyone's guess.
"To tell you the truth, our last thought was who was going to see it," says Lincoln producer Kathleen Kennedy. "Our first job was to see if we could get it made."
It took more than three presidential terms to finish Steven Spielberg's story of our 16th president (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) and his effort to push through the 13th Amendment, that abolished slavery.
Analysts expected the 2 1/2-hour movie to propel Spielberg and Day-Lewis on the awards show circuit. Quietly, though, DreamWorks and Disney executives wondered whether Lincoln could survive in the turbulence of Twilight's final takeoff from theaters to recoup its $65 million budget.
Already the film has done $65 million since its Nov. 16 opening and will likely cross the nine-digit club by the end of the year, solidifying its standing as a major Oscar contender.
"You'd have to consider this one of the surprise movies of the year," says Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. "The ads were right, the timing was perfect to not make this feel like a history lesson."
The project bounced around since 1999 as studios searched for an actor and concise script to capture the larger-than-life figure. It wasn't until Spielberg met author/historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who had just finished her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, that he found a suitable chapter in the president's life to bring to the big screen: the slavery battle.
Still, filmmakers had to convince studios they could tell a personal story that still addressed one of the nation's most galvanizing historic moments. Kennedy says that the studio knew it had a commercially viable drama after the first two weeks of filming Lewis' scenes, which required 45 pages of dialogue.
"If you watched the faces of the other actors, of the people on set, you could see that they were being moved, that they realized they were part of something bigger than a movie," she says.
And that required something more than straightforward film advertising. Executives knew they could be selling extraordinarily thorny subject matter. Through providence, the film wrapped up shortly before the Nov. 6 presidential election, but studios decided to delay its release until after the race ended.
Stacey Snyder, DreamWorks co-chairman and CEO, says she worried that the movie would attract political one-upmanship. "We didn't want to raise the temptation in others to co-opt or distort the movie for partisan reasons. We wanted to take advantage of the time when politics would be on people's minds."
The studio bought two-minute ads that resembled no-party political ads, featuring Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., before dissolving to some of Lincoln's famous passages.
The studio also unveiled its posters during the political conventions. "We just wanted to connect with people who wanted a political discourse."
The discussion is moving to younger demographics, the studios say. While about 65% of the audience remains 40 and older, Disney is reporting an uptick of parents bringing their children to theaters. The movie is doing more strongly in urban areas, but, says Snyder, "we're not seeing a red-white, North-South division."
Kennedy says that while she never envisioned the political climate when they began the movie 13 years ago, it's acting as an accelerant at the box office.
"We never expected it to be this relevant," she says. "A divided country, an African-American president, a lame-duck Congress. The issues are as resonant as they've ever been, and I think people are still in the mood to talk about the issues that matter."