Last winter, a typically can’t-miss blockbuster like Gulliver’s Travels missed by a mile… while a story about a stuttering king made a mint. The supposedly dead western genre lassoed $171 million courtesy of the Coen brothers‘ True Grit. And Black Swan, Darren Aronofosky’s saga of a ballet dancer’s quest for greatness, bullied past the magical $100 million barrier.

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of the 2010 Oscar season. But will 2011 be a sequel to those sleeper hits or a return to business as usual for an industry addicted to superheroes and reboots?

It’s not unheard of for an Oscar-bait project to crush it at the box office. David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button rang up $127 million in ticket sales three years ago, while Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds made $120 million the following year. But the 2010 Oscar season yielded four unprecedented “indie” box office smashes, including $93.6 million for David O. Russell’s The Fighter.

Opinions remained mixed on whether this signals an audience demand for more sophisticated fare. But all eyes are on a few late 2011 releases that could connect just as strongly with both critics and audiences.

Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles believes the death of traditional film criticism in favor of Web blotter could be one reason why audience tastes seem to be changing.

“In past years you had authoritative critics—voices people would listen to,” says Bowles. “That’s less the case now. It’s a preponderance of critical chatter. The cumulative effect is now what’s important.”

Media awareness also helps prestige films crack the crowded marketplace.

“People know more about films now before they even come,” says Bowles, who pins high hopes on his company‘s fall release, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, as a potential breakout success.

Gitesh Pandya of Box Office Guru points to a diminishing number of young moviegoers for a possible longer-term trend in favoring mature features.

“They’re still coming out to the theater, but not the way they used to,” says Pandya of the youth crowd, pointing to entertainment alternatives like online content and video games as considerable distractions. “It takes a lot more these days to get teens to come out to the movies.”

The absence of younger moviegoers in the fall shines a brighter spotlight on films aimed at older audiences. Hollywood, in turn, must continue delivering appropriate content to that demographic or face a market correction.

Steve Patterson, host of “Hollywood Dailies” on ReelzChannel, believes that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo stands the best chance of pulling in The King’s Speech-style numbers, given its literary pedigree and David Fincher’s presence behind the camera.

The rapid growth of social networking outlets like Facebook and Twitter over the past 12 months could be good news for studios producing quality features, too.

“Previously, you only heard about a movie from a friend,” says Patterson. “Now, they’re trending topics on Twitter… This year, we’ll get a better sample of how much of an effect that has.”

While mass appeal films like Puss in Boots and the new Twilight feature, Breaking Dawn, will certainly make some coin during the holiday season, Yahoo! Movies executive producer Sean Phillips says the studios will likely be more willing to promote movies with that precious Oscar buzz. Especially since marketing played a key role in how well The King’s Speech fared with moviegoers last year. Phillips says the Weinstein Company’s aggressive push behind the Best Picture winner cinched the deal for some ticket-buyers.

Phillips points to Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and The Rum Diary, featuring Johnny Depp, as two films with bankable prospects.

Other films with the potential to win over critics and crowds alike include Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, and Phyllida Lloyd’s Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady. A single publicity still of star Meryl Streep in full prime minister regalia released earlier this year inspired near-instant Oscar buzz.

Audiences still demand their popcorn entertainment, but more provocative films are no longer box office poison.

“The fact [is] that audiences seemed to be starved for something more substantial than the comic book movies that are becoming more common by the day,” says Ira Deutchman, managing partner with Emerging Pictures.

“One early sign is the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, which is his highest grossing film to date. That should tell you something,” Deutchman says.