'Theory' of attraction: Hawking movie a test of art house films' staying power

Eddie Redmayne is shown in this Nov. 19, 2014 photo.
The Explorer Society of New York

Hollywood is being overtaken by mutants and meta-humans, making it hard for a garden-variety astrophysicist to catch a break in the movies.

With that in mind, even producing a vehicle about one of the world's most recognizable scholars was certainly no easy feat. That assessment comes directly from the man who wrote the script of author and scholar Stephen Hawking's biopic, "The Theory of Everything," which has been showing in theaters for nearly a month.

"It took 10 years to get this film off the ground," Anthony McCarten told CNBC in a response to emailed questions.

The difficulties of moving "Theory" from script to screen underscore the challenges facing art house movies, which are colliding with certain economic realities, he said. For scripts that don't feature well-known characters or A-list actors, the road to a green light can be even tougher, as big budget super heroes crowd out independent flicks.

"This was partly to do with the assumption that, no matter how compelling the central characters or how unprecedented their journey, physics and the travails of [Hawking's] disease…were almost certainly not going to be a recipe for big box office numbers," McCarten said.

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The Explorer Society of New York

The screenplay charts Hawking's development as a young physics student at the University Cambridge—where he is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and given an initial prognosis of two years to live—to his marriage and the penning of his definitive tome, "A Brief History of Time."

When it debuted in New York and Los Angeles early this month, "Theory" arrived at an inauspicious time at the U.S. box office. The Thanksgiving to Christmas stretch normally gets swallowed by large budget, special effects heavy "popcorn" movies that serve as tentpoles for the major studios.

"Theory" was forced to share its premiere weekend with two movie juggernauts, "Interstellar" and animated film "Big Hero Six," which combined for a debut of more than $100 million. The movie is gradually expanding its run to more theaters nationwide.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of indie movies, even those with cultural icons like Steve Jobs at their core, are becoming prohibitively daunting as Tinseltown promotes a blitz of tentpoles. The 10 top-grossing independent movies of 2013 combined to earn more than $230 million, according to figures from Indiewire.com.

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Still, that amount is barely a tenth of the $2.3 billion this year's box-office behemoths have reaped—all of which were science fiction, cartoon and comic adaptation spectacles like "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Captain America," and "Maleficent."

Conversely, independent movie makers are burdened with the task of challenging "the myth that audiences seek only spectacle," McCarten told CNBC.

"What they want, and have always wanted, is an immersive, emotional experience that surprises, delights and educates. How seldom these experiences involve airborne men in tights with special powers," he quipped.

Hawking his own super hero?

Hawking—a theoretical physicist and globally renowned author—is certainly no ordinary mortal. Given a wealth of accomplishments and a life story that personifies overcoming long odds, one could easily make a case for Hawking being a superhero himself.

The emotional plot of "Theory" illustrates how a physically slight, brilliant academic who's self-confident enough to delve into the universe's deepest mysteries—not unlike Reed Richards of the "Fantastic Four" (also coming to a theater near you in 2015).

Simultaneously, Hawking conquers the ravages of a debilitating disease (Wolverine's healing factor, anyone?) while capturing the affections of his own version of Superman's Lois Lane. In the movie, Jane Hawking, played by Felicity Jones, seems to be one of the most comely women on Cambridge's campus.

"He's continually defied expectation, and there are many heroic qualities to him for sure," Eddie Redmayne, who played Hawking in "Theory", told CNBC in a brief interview in New York last week. "It was a real treat to get to enter his orbit."

But in an environment where even the story of Margaret Thatcher, the world bestriding former U.K. prime minister, can barely crack $100 million in movie ticket receipts, does a Cambridge scholar stand a reasonable chance to earn both accolades and ticket sales?

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Although "Theory" has pulled in nearly $10 million as it enters wide release, McCarten insists indie films can still carve their own niche—and stand alongside the computer generated images of their big-budget counterparts.

"Of course there is a market, and every year the point is made again and again, in people's hearts and at the Oscars and at the box-office, that people want inspiring true stories," he said.

"My job, and the job of everyone interested in grown-up film-making, is to make sure we get it to them: certified fresh, dazzling, remarkable and…true," McCarten added.