About three years ago, producer Graham Broadbent visited the offices of Peter Rice, who was then running Fox Searchlight Pictures. Stacked near Rice’s DVD player were discs of the senior citizen comedies “Cocoon” and “Cocoon: The Return.” “There have to be movies for older audiences,” Rice told Broadbent. “There have to be.” Broadbent replied, “I think we may have something for you.”
The movie Broadbent pitched that day was “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,"a comedy starring Judi Dench and Bill Nighy about a fledgling retirement home in India. The film, which Fox Searchlight ended up co-financing, opens in limited U.S. release Friday on 27 screens, having already collected more than $70 million in Europe and other foreign territories starting in February.
Supported by an extensive North American screening campaign that has disbursed some 10,000 free admissions, the film is now set to test the premise that American moviegoers of a certain age will go to the multiplex if there is something there for them.
Even though people ages 50 and older make up a third of the nation’s population, the AARP-eligible represent only 21% of ticket buyers, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. While"The King’s Speech"and"The Artist"generated significant revenue from older patrons, very few movies are aimed directly at that audience, particularly in the summer. In an extreme case of counterprogramming, “Marigold Hotel” will open directly opposite the fanboy behemoth “Marvel’s The Avengers,” which is likely to have one of the biggest opening weekends of all time.
“It’s just not a constituency that figures very strongly at the center of movies,” said John Madden, who directed “Marigold Hotel,” adapted by screenwriter Ol Parker from Deborah Moggach’s novel “These Foolish Things.” “The engine of the industry is considered to be people aged 16 to 24.”
In addition to Dench and Nighy, “Marigold Hotel” stars Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup as British seniors facing their golden years with varying degrees of hope and terror and not all that much money. Journeying largely alone (Nighy’s and Wilton’s characters are miserably married), the characters are seduced into trekking to the outskirts of Jaipur by some clever Photoshopping that makes the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly & Beautiful look like paradise at a steep discount.
The hotel is actually falling apart much faster than its visitors, and its overwhelmed manager (played by Dev Patel of"Slumdog Millionaire”), for all of his cheerfulness, seems incapable of making all his guests content.
Some of the retirees see India as fertile ground for new adventures, while others would consider an early grave a more pleasant alternative.
Inspired by a culture that, in the film’s words, sees every day as a privilege and not a right, the seven characters slowly learn not just how to cope with India but also how to revel in it. Much like “Calendar Girls” or “The Full Monty,” the movie sees old age as more blessing than curse, and in some ways, the “Marigold Hotel” characters are more lively than people half their age in other films.
The movie, which was developed by Broadbent’s Blueprint Pictures and Participant Media, briefly struggled to find backing, as flirtations with Summit Entertainment and Pathé failed to close. Then Searchlight became involved. “We had talked for a long time about finding a movie for the aging edge of the baby boomers,” said Nancy Utley, who with Steve Gilula succeeded Rice in running Searchlight. “The older audience is so large and has a lot of spending power — not just for entertainment — and is not being catered to.”
With rebates and tax credits, “Marigold Hotel” cost Searchlight and Participant just $12 million to produce, so its balance sheet is already in the black. While the overseas returns largely have been driven by older patrons, “Marigold Hotel” also has done respectable business with people decades away from assisted living. While British patrons were 65% female, those 35 and older represented 58% of the audience, and nearly 1 in 7 ticket buyers was between 18 and 24. “It’s jumped beyond its natural demographic,” Madden said.
In England, “Marigold Hotel” just passed"Black Swan"as Searchlight’s second highest-grossing release; the No. 1 film remains “The Full Monty.”
For its U.S. release, Searchlight initially will focus on moviegoers getting along in years. Ahead of the film’s arrival in 12 big cities this weekend, the studio has held some 250 early screenings across the country, inviting thousands of people from organizations such as the Red Hat Society to free previews to start chatting up the film. “The movie really spoke to the heart of what the society is really about. And once one of our ladies shares a good thing, it gets passed on,” said Emily Yost of the Red Hat Society, which claims 80,000 female members ages 47 to 65.
Gilula said the studio is following a screening model used for “Juno,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Bend It Like Beckham.” “It’s an aggressive campaign,” he said. “But we like to do it when we have films that have high playability.”
Broadbent said that although giving away so many free admissions may seem like bad business, movies that have inherent word-of-mouth appeal can reap greater rewards. “You hope that each one of those 10,000 people comes back with 10 friends,” he said.
Meanwhile, Searchlight has been focusing its advertising and promotional dollars narrowly. Instead of buying a blizzard of network prime-time spots, the studio has been placing “Marigold Hotel” spots on older-skewing programs such as “60 Minutes,” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,""Rachael Ray” and “Today.”
Searchlight is conducting “Marigold Hotel” promotions and sweepstakes with the discount website LivingSocial, Martha Stewart Living, the women’s gym Curves and the furniture and clothing site One Kings Lane.
If “Marigold Hotel” works in the United States, it will also mark a return to form for director Madden. After making the Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love,” two of the filmmaker’s subsequent movies — “Proof” and"Killshot” — were given hardly any marketing support by their distributors. But with"The Debt,” released in the U.S. last year, and now “Marigold Hotel,” the 63-year-old has a new lease on his professional life.
“I can’t say it’s designed, but it’s the way it worked out,” Madden said. “It’s been a rewarding couple of years.”