In Hollywood, it’s counterprogramming. In the real world, it’s borderline suicide.
When the big studios release their most anticipated blockbusters, any number of distributors dare to open their smaller movies on the very same weekend. The idea is to offer moviegoers — usually more upscale, grown-up patrons — a clear alternative to the big popcorn titles, which typically cater to teenagers and young adults.
This weekend, for example, Fox Searchlight will introduce its $12-million comedy “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a look at seven British retirees embarking to India, directly opposite Disney and Marvel’s $220-million “The Avengers,” an action-packed spectacle with Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk.
In theory, the counterprogramming idea makes sense and can work for smaller films. In recent history, however, the results have been mixed to terrible — with one exception — especially in the cases of wide releases pitched against the three biggest weekend premieres of all time.
Last summer, on the same weekend that Warner Bros. unveiled “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2” to a record opening of $169.2 million, Disney tried to grab little kids who cower at the sight of Lord Voldemort with “Winnie the Pooh.” But the animated bear yarn unraveled fast, grossing just $26.7 million in limited release. In limited release that same weekend, Eros International’s Indian film “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara” opened to respectable business, ultimately selling $3.1 million in tickets.
On the second biggest opening weekend of all time — Warners Bros.’ debut of “The Dark Knight” in 2008, which took in $158.4 million — Universal scored one of the biggest counterprogramming successes ever. Its ABBA musical “Mamma Mia!” ultimately grossed $144.1 million. “Space Chimps,” an animated release from 20th Century Fox, never took flight, grossing just $30.1 million. In limited release that same weekend, First Look’s “Transsiberian” performed reasonably well, netting $2.2 million.
Earlier this year, opposite Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games,” which grossed a third-best opening of $152.5 million, no movie dared open in wide release. In a limited national release, Samuel Goldwyn’s “October Baby” ultimately grossed $5 million, Sony Pictures Classics' “The Raid: Redemption” grossed $3.9 million and Music Box’s “The Deep Blue Sea” grossed $874,000.
Fox Searchlight, which co-financed “Marigold Hotel” with Participant Media, doesn’t really need the film to cripple “The Avengers” in local theaters. Having opened in Europe several weeks ago, “Marigold Hotel” already has grossed more than $70 million overseas.
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— John Horn
Photo: Judi Dench, left, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." Credit: Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight.