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The surprising success of "12 Years a Slave"

"12 Years a Slave," winner of this year's Oscar for Best Picture, will be a money-maker for 21st Century Fox (FOXA), albeit at more modest rate than Walt Disney's (DIS) $1 billion animated feature "Frozen."

The story of Solomon Northup, a free African American who's kidnapped and enslaved, has grossed more than $140 million worldwide including more than $50 million domestically, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Given the movie's grim subject matter, experts say "12 Years" has performed surprisingly well. According to Fox, the film is the sixth-highest grossing film ever released by Fox Searchlight pictures, on a domestic basis. Other major hits from Fox Searchlight include 2007's "Juno" and 2008's "Slumdog Millionaire."

"When it comes to movie quality, people are color-blind," said Keith Simanton, managing editor of the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), in an interview

Though there were some concerns whether a frank story about the brutality of slavery would attract overseas audiences, the film is performing well outside the U.S., topping the box office in the U.K. when it opened there. Some controversy arose in Italy after posters promoting the film featured Brad Pitt, one of the producers (who also had a minor part), and another white actor, Michael Fassbender, instead of star Chiwetel Ejiofor, a U.K. native whose parents are from Nigeria. Ejiofor was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. The posters were withdrawn.

Fox, which marketed and distributed film, began selling it on DVD this week. It's also available for home viewing on services such as video-on-demand.

"The film has more than doubled our initial expectations," said Michelle Hooper, a Fox Searchlight spokeswoman, in an email.

According to The New York Times, "12 Years" was lifted to "breakaway hit status" by the Oscar process and helped it attract audiences outside the U.S. that it wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

"Obviously, you have a distinctive American story about slavery," Simanton said. "You would assume that it wouldn't travel well, but it has."

"12 Years," which cost about $20 million to produce, compares favorably to "Argo," which captured the Best Picture award in 2013 and grossed $136 million in the U.S. "The King's Speech," the 2011 winner, grossed $139 million domestically.

"For an R-rated period piece it's a great result," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, in an interview, adding that unlike "Argo" and "The King's Speech," "12 Years" didn't feature a well-known actor in the lead role. "The aspirations of this movie were to be a great movie and not to be a blockbuster."

In the weekend before the Academy Awards, "12 Years" saw its box office spike 86 percent, indicating that moviegoers were caught up in the buzz surrounding it. In addition to the Best Picture award, Lupita Nyong'o won Best Supporting Actress, and writer John Ridley took home the award for Best Adaptive Screenplay. Director Steven McQueen became the first black man to win Best Picture. Overall, "12 Years" received nine Oscar nominations.

"There were certain expectations attached to it," said Dergarabedian. "It was a film that critics absolutely raved about."

Some of the films that "12 Years" beat for Hollywood's highest honor have earned more money, and others earned considerably less.

"Gravity," an outer-space thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, has brought in $270 million at the box office, while the gross for "American Hustle" has hit $147 million. Tom Hanks' "Captain Phillips" has grossed $107 million, while "Philomena" has taken in $33 million. "Dallas Buyers Club," for which actors Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won Oscars, has taken in $25 million, Spike Jonze's "Her," a story about a man who falls in love with a computer operating system, pulled in $24 million, while "Nebraska" grossed $17 million.

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