How ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ Became This Summer’s Surprise Indie Smash

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With a cast of older actors like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, the geriatric comedy took on "The Avengers" — and thrived

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is poised to leap out of the arthouse and into the mainstream.

The story of a group of British retirees, grappling with illness and financial burdens, who decide to move to India is hardly the stuff of summer blockbusters. Yet the Fox Searchlight and Participant Media film has quietly racked up nearly $90 million worldwide, with $9.2 million of that haul coming in the United States.

It has accomplished this feat largely by being the anti-"Avengers." While the Marvel superhero blockbuster has packed theaters with teenagers, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" has instead focused on a neglected moviegoing demographic — senior citizens.

“This community is always looking to go see something where  they don’t have to listen to things explode or guns being shot,” Jim Berk, CEO of Participant, told TheWrap. “They just want a lovely day at the movies.”

Fox Searchlight

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With the film ready to expand from 354 theaters to more than 1,200 locations over Memorial Day, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” will find out if it can be another surprise smash like last summer’s “Midnight in Paris.”

“This is the big test, with a three-day weekend and strong momentum, we’ll see if this is a smaller movie that does nicely for us or if it breaks out in a big way,” Berk said. 

It is already on pace to be a hit on the level of Woody Allen’s homage to the City of Lights or the 2003 geriatric comedy “Calendar Girls.” After two weeks of release, “Midnight in Paris” had grossed $6.8 million domestically while “Calendar Girls” had earned $6.9 million. They went on to earn $56.8 million and $31 million respectively.

Made for $10 million, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" supplanted CBS Films’ “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” this week as the highest grossing art house film domestically this year.

Also read: 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' Review: A Sweet and Funny Fantasy for Retirees

“It is the second best story of the summer after ‘The Avengers,’” Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, told TheWrap. “It is one of those gems like ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ that Fox Searchlight finds more often than not, and now it has a chance to play long into the summer.”

What makes the film’s run all the more impressive is that it opened against “The Avengers” and has continued to rack up impressive numbers, while big-budget films, like “Battleship” and “Dark Shadows,” have faltered.

Indeed, Frank Rodriguez, senior vice president of distribution at Fox Searchlight, thinks that "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" has a good chance to hit $30 million domestically, a princely figure for a movie that mostly stars actors who qualified for social security benefits over a decade ago.

“It is nice to have a film that offers something that’s different than expectant mothers and superheroes,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of those films are going to attract the same people, and this is one of the only films that stands out as real counter-programming.” 

Credit goes to an innovative ad campaign that perfectly understood its core demographic and marketed accordingly. In particular, television spots were paired to PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” which Berk said typically draws the older and more affluent crowd that the movie needed to attract.

Fox Searchlight

Likewise, the studio began advertising on television months in advance of the film's premiere — an unusual move for a film of this size — because the studio felt that it needed to drive awareness early. Once the film opened, Berk said, the producers were confidant that word of mouth would bolster ticket sales and reduce the need for pricey television spots.

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In addition, Participant exploited an approach that worked well for previous films, like its dolphin hunting documentary “The Cove,” by partnering with nonprofit groups to create social justice and education campaigns tied to the film’s themes.

Through its Take Part website, Participant joined with organizations like Encore.org, a group that educates people about starting second careers as senior citizens, as far back as January to talk about policies and programs of interest to the graying set.

“It is much more effective than buying ads or advertising on television because these organizations really turn the page for us in terms of driving awareness and interest,” Berk said.

Though the film’s cast drips with Oscar winners and nominees like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Berk maintains there was little thought to position the movie in awards season. Indeed, by steering clear of the fall, when many studios release their Academy Awards contenders, the film’s backers avoided the kind of demographic oversaturation that is  hobbling pictures like “Battleship” and “The Dictator,” all of which are going after roughly the same audience.

“It just had a spring feel to it,” Berk said. “You have to see it when the sun is out. We didn’t want to be in the middle of a congested lineup. We wanted time in the marketplace to allow our film to gestate.”