When it comes to foreign language films you often see a correlation between Oscar success and domestic box office. The awards correlation is much stronger than it is with English language pictures. Those don't need to be regarded as hits to have a big awards profile (think Little Children, Letters From Iwo Jima, and Babel this year alone) though it obviously doesn't hurt.
For a foreign film anything between $3 - 9 million at the US box office is definitely in the 'big hit' category since at least 80% of the subtitled films never reach the $1 million mark. Films from this decade in that range include Amores Perros, Atanarjuat the Fast Runner, Bad Education, The Barbarian Invasions, Caché (Hidden), City of God, Downfall, Goodbye Lenin!, Maria Full of Grace, Talk to Her and Nowhere in Africa -- several of which were Oscar nominated.
The 'smash hits' are the ones that end up cracking the 8 figure barrier. Recent films that've lept that big hurdle for subtitled pictures are House of Flying Daggers, The Motorcycle Diaries, Volver and Y Tu Mama Tambien. Films that get this big despite requiring literacy in American moviegoers are almost always rewarded with Oscar nominations unless they're action flicks (Kung Fu Hustle or Brotherhood of the Wolf) ineligible (Hero) or named Monsoon Wedding ($13 million but still ignored by AMPAS).
Once a foreign flick nabs multiple Oscar nominations they can usually get even bigger. These are the ones that end up in the multiplexes: Il Postino ($10 million before nominations. $21 by the end of its run) Life is Beautiful ($18 before nominations, $57 in total) Pan's Labyrinth this year had just broken the 8 figure mark before its nominations were announced. Now it's as big as an Amélie (in the $30+ range) but still not the behemoth that the champ Crouching Tiger was ($60 million before nominations. $128 by the end of its run)
blah blah blah box office blah blah...
Point being: the big obstacle for Pan's Labyrinth is not subtitles (once you reach a certain saturation point you're not "foreign" anymore --just a regular old hit movie) but its genre. Lord of the Rings aside, Oscar voters are often immune to the charms of the fantastical outside of say, special effects and makeup. But Pan's is a crowdpleaser. Could it be a powerhouse on Sunday night? Could it actually win the most Oscars? It's more probable than it sounds.
Let's look at the six categories:
This would be a major get but it's the only statue that seems truly out of reach. It's hard to imagine Best Picture nominees like Babel, Little Miss Sunshine or The Queen letting a fantasy film overtake them.
Verdict: Very unlikely
In this category Pan's major competitor is Dreamgirls but my guess (and hope) is that enough voters will feel that John Myhre was already rewarded for the stage & curtains razzle dazzle when he won for Chicago and will be too wowed by Pan's memorable set construction to pass it up in this category.
Verdict: Pan's is the frontrunner. But vulnerable.
If any film in this category can defeat Emmanuel Lubezki's virtuoso work on Children of Men, it's this doubled fantasy world. But let's hope Lubezki, a world class DP, holds on to his momentum after his recent cinematography guild win and is finally Oscared on his fourth nomination. Lubezki is a true rarity. He can get nominated even if the film housing his work isn't anywhere near the Best Picture race. In fact, none of his nominations have come from Best Pictures. This award should and probably will land in his talented hands.
Verdict: Pan's is a possible spoiler.
Scoring is often a difficult category to predict. Babel seems to empty of original material to deserve the statue (will voters notice that the music they're responding too is not the original score itself). Notes' music is probably too divisive (as Phillip Glass scores often are)
Verdict: It's a squeaker. Will Pan's memorable haunted lullaby carry it past The Queen or the umpteenth chance to honor Thomas Newman (for The Good German this time)?
It's high profile and those multiple nominations in other categories ensure that they'll take it very seriously. But Amélie also had that advantage and lost to a more sober film No Man's Land. Germany's entry The Lives of Others could go the distance but I'm guessing Pan's holds on because it's not "light". It doesn't have the comedy working against them taking it seriously.
Verdict: Pan's is the frontrunner
The makeup creations of Pan, the Pale Man (pictured) and that Black Dahlia-esque injury on the evil Captain (Sergi Lopez) ought to fend off Pan's only real challenger, the prosthetic gore and theatrical face and body paint of Apocalypto.
Verdict: Pan's is the frontrunner
I may regret this but as of this writing I'm predicting that Pan's Labyrinth will nab the most (or tied for the most) statues of the night with a minimum of three and a maximum of four wins.