LOS ANGELES — 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 so far taken in $88.8 million at the global box office. With about $9.3 million in ticket sales in North America since opening in limited release on May 4, “Marigold Hotel” is now the year’s top-selling specialty movie, passing another solid performer, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.”
Fox Searchlight, the mini-studio behind “Marigold Hotel,” is so encouraged by ticket sales that it is racing the film into more cities. Featuring an ensemble cast anchored by Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (both 77), the film will play about 1,230 locations over Memorial Day weekend, one of the busiest moviegoing periods of the year, up from 354 last weekend. Box Office Analyst, a forecaster in Kansas City, Mo., said “Marigold Hotel” could play into July and take in $30 million or more in North America by the end of its run.
“It’s supply and demand,” said Doug Stone, the company’s president. “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.’ ”
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 Corporation’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.
“We felt that this was a great story, but we were also very conscious of the fact that there is a large and underserved older audience out there,” said Stephen Gilula, a Searchlight president. “The response, which is far beyond our expectations, once again shows that there is a very diverse moviegoing audience.”
“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 has become an unlikely attention grabber.
“There’s a big audience, and not just an older one, that is hungry for something that isn’t fantasy,” Mr. Gilula said.
Hollywood has been slower than almost any other industry to market to older people, partly because the 50-and-older crowd tends to avoid opening weekends and doesn’t buy a lot of popcorn. It also has traditionally gone to the movies far less frequently. Moviegoers under 50 (an age range that includes 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), according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Younger audiences are more willing to sit through the sequels and remakes the movie 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,” Mr. Stone said.
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 recent 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. In comparison, about 14.8 million people ages 2 to 24 were frequent moviegoers last year, an 11 percent decline from the previous year.
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 movie marketers stand on their heads trying to spark positive chatter for films on social networks and blogs, they are also increasingly thinking about word of mouth among retirees, at least for certain films.
Disney and DreamWorks Studios, for instance, held special “War Horse” screenings last year in retirement communities as a part of an outreach program. Searchlight initially focused on retiree hot spots like Arizona and Florida for its “Marigold Hotel” campaign. Some theaters in those areas saw higher ticket sales for Ms. Dench, Ms. Smith and their castmates — Tom Wilkinson, 64, Bill Nighy, 62, Penelope Wilton, 65 — than for “Marvel’s The Avengers.”
“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.”