Anytime a film costs $10 million to make and ticket sales approach $100 million, Hollywood pays attention. But jaws really drop when a movie starring actors in their 70s and aimed at people over 50 pulls off that trick.
Wait. Stop. Older people will go to the movies if we give them something to watch besides superheroes and special effects?
Surprise: “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a gentle comedic drama about disparate British retirees who decamp to India, has taken in $97.3 million at the global box office. With $18.5 million in ticket sales in North America since opening May 4, “Marigold Hotel” is now the year’s top-selling specialty movie, passing another solid performer, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.”
“It’s supply and demand,” said Doug Stone, president of Box Office Analyst. “There’s just very little out there that appeals to older people. It’s not like they’re going to rush out to see ‘Chernobyl Diaries.’ ”
Fox Searchlight, the studio behind “Marigold Hotel,” is so encouraged that it is racing the film into more cities. Featuring an ensemble cast anchored by Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (both 77), the film played about 1,230 locations over Memorial Day weekend, one of the busiest moviegoing periods of the year, up from 354.
Box Office Analyst said “Marigold Hotel” could play into July and take in $30 million or more in North America by the end of its run.
(“Marigold Hotel” is playing in Charlotte at Regal theaters and Concord Mills.)
The robust reception of “Marigold Hotel” by audiences – critical reaction has been strong but not euphoric – validates Searchlight’s dual business strategies. The studio, part of News Corp.’s 20th Century Fox, spotted a generally overlooked audience (older adults) and went after it. The movie is also a prime example of Searchlight’s overall operating philosophy to aim narrowly, which, when successful, allows the studio to spend small and collect big.
“Marigold Hotel,” directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), stands out for another reason. Amid a sea of superheroes (“The Amazing Spider-Man”), alien invasions (“Battleship”) and animation (“Madagascar 3”), there is a severe shortage of reality-based storytelling at the movies. Real people in real situations have become unlikely attention grabbers.
“There’s a big audience, and not just an older one, that is hungry for something that isn’t fantasy,” said Stephen Gilula, a Searchlight president.
Hollywood has been slower than almost any other industry to market to older people, partly because the over-50 crowd tends to avoid opening weekends and doesn’t buy a lot of popcorn.
It also has gone to the movies less frequently. Moviegoers under 50 (about 67 percent of the United States) bought 77 percent of the tickets last year, compared with 23 percent for those over 50 (33 percent of the population), says the Motion Picture Association of America.
Younger audiences are more willing to sit through the sequels and remakes the studios like to churn out to reduce risk.
“If you’re in your 40s or 50s or beyond, you’ve seen a lot of movies in your lifetime and want something that you haven’t seen before,” Stone said.
Why story matters
But frequent moviegoers – defined by the industry as people who buy tickets once a month or more – were older in 2011 than in the previous year, according to a report by the motion picture association. About 20.2 million adults ages 25 and older fit that category last year, a 9 percent increase over 2010. About 14.8 million people ages 2 to 24 were frequent moviegoers last year, an 11 percent decline.
Hollywood is also starting to realize that the first of 78 million baby boomers are hitting retirement age with some entertainment time to fill and a love affair with movies. So while marketers try to spark positive chatter for films on social networks and blogs, they are also thinking about word of mouth among retirees, at least for certain films.
“People may be surprised in Hollywood, but the popularity of this film is no mystery to us,” said Laura Resnick, manager at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema, an upscale theater in suburban St. Louis. “When there is a story being told on the screen, people respond.”