How Fox Marketed ‘Parental Guidance’ Into a Box Office Hit

Analysis: "Parental Guidance" is a PG family comedy but Fox figured mature audiences would be drawn to the film and targeted them from the start

“Parental Guidance” was “the other Christmas movie,” and didn’t generate near the pre-release heat that “Django Unchained” or “Les Miserables” did. But the Billy Crystal-Bette Midler family comedy has quietly turned into a box-office hit for Fox.

“Django” and “Les Miz” cleared the $100 million mark at the domestic box office this weekend, and “Parental Guidance” may never do that. But it’s made nearly $53 million in 13 days and is on track to wind up north of $70 million. Produced by Crystal and Peter Chernin for $25 million — half what “Les Miz” cost and a quarter of the “Django” budget — it’s a winner already.

Stars Crystal and Midler, both of whom returned to the big screen after long absences for the lead roles, get a lot of the credit. Crystal was last on the big screen in 2002’s “Analyze That,” and Midler was last seen in “The Women” in 2008.

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“Crystal is kind of an everyman for the older crowd,” Exhibitor Relations senior analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap, “and Midler’s appeal is pretty broad, too.” Bock contrasted that with the stars of another holiday comedy, Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand  of Paramount’s “Guilt Trip.“ Both of them have followings, but both of them can turn people off, too.”

The PG-13 “Guilt Trip” with a $40 million production budget, has struggled, taking in just $31 million since opening on Dec. 19.

It isn’t the critics who are selling “Parental Guidance.” It has just a 19 percent “fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but then, how many seniors base movie going decisions on online reviews?

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Fox did a great job of identifying a niche for a PG-rated comedy in a very crowded market, and nailing it with a promo push squarely aimed at attracting mature moviegoers.

In the film, Artie (Crystal) and Diane (Midler) agree to look after their three grandkids when their type-A parents (Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott) need to leave town for work. Problems arise when the kids' 21st-century behaviors collide with Artie and Diane's old-school parenting methods.

The script, from Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, was a natural for older audiences. So early on, Fox tied in with the American Association of Retired People and the Brookdale Senior Living Partnership, which oversees communities with more 60,000 residents. The film was featured on the covers of the Oct.-Nov. and Dec.-Jan. issues of the AARP magazine, and a screening and Q&A with Crystal, director Andy Fickman and several of the film’s stars kicked off the organization’s annual “Life at 50” convention in New Orleans last fall. Another series of 20 screenings for AARP members followed that.

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Fox isn't the only studio to target baby boomers, the 40 million-strong group born between 1946 and 1964 that the last U.S. Census identified as the fastest growing part of the nation's population. In 2012, several films with older stars targeting mature audiences have clicked, including "Hope Springs," "Expendables 2" and "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."

The cast of "Parental Guidance," especially the 64-year-old Crystal, pushed the film relentlessly with more than 40 TV appearances. In the weeks leading up to its release, Crystal was on “The David Letterman Show” twice, “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” and with Midler on NBC’s “Rockefeller Christmas Special.” A well-known sports fan, he also guest-anchored ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” was interviewed during Fox’s World Series broadcasts and has been a fixture at the newly hot L.A. Clippers NBA games.

“This is an all-audience film,” Fox distribution chief Chris Aronson told TheWrap Monday, "and being the only PG-rated, original content movie at the holidays has a distinct advantage.”

It’s an advantage that will continue to pay dividends for weeks; January’s release schedule is dominated by R-rated films and horror movies. Even without that edge, “Parental Guidance” was likely to have a healthy shelf-life, because mature moviegoers are more inclined to get out on their own schedules, rather than racing to see a movie on opening weekend.

“Older audiences tend not to tune in to traditional marketing, at least not right away,” Bock said. “So by January, when they might, it could actually get a bit of a boost.”