First half of year for indie market lifted by duo

It’s not always easy being indie.

But bustling biz for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Moonrise Kingdom” proves that the top reaches of the category are going strong, with specialty numbers up over last year when “Midnight in Paris” boosted the first half of the year.

Strong support from the 50-plus crowd helped Fox Searchlight’s “Marigold” become the year’s top-grossing specialty pic, with more than $40 million Stateside. For “Moonrise,” interest for helmer Wes Anderson from a wide age range drove his first partnership with Focus Features to become the No. 2 specialty pic of the year so far, with $21.4 million domestically.

Upbeat comedy “Marigold Hotel” began as an over-50 magnet in cities including Phoenix and Miami, then caught on with younger auds as well, resulting in competitive grosses in such cities as Boston and Seattle. Fox Searchlight screened the pic aggressively for audiences that included over-50 filmgoers.

Even before launching Stateside on May 4, recognition for Brit stars Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Billy Nighy and Tom Wilkinson took “Marigold” to more than $70 million internationally, which has grown to $85 million.

For “Moonrise Kingdom,” consider the film’s perf in St. Louis: Focus opened the pic at the Landmark’s Tivoli theater, where it wowed with a $21,000 opening gross starting the weekend of June 8. “It’s in an area with a lot of clubs, and we specifically chose the Tivoli because of that younger core,” said Focus distribution prexy Jack Foley.

The following weekend, Focus expanded “Moonrise” to St. Louis’ older-skewing Landmark location — the Frontenac — where the film similarly overperformed with $19,000 in three days.

Focus bowed Anderson’s Cannes opener over Memorial Day weekend to the highest-ever per-screen average for a live-action film ($130,749). Since then, Focus has rolled out “Moonrise” slowly, expanding the whimsical coming-of-age dramedy to 884 playdates currently — its highest count so far.

Several other specialty pics are showing promise.

Sony Pictures Classics, which expands Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” to 806 theaters this weekend, scored earlier this year with Oscar foreign-lingo winner “A Separation,” grossing more than $7 million domestically. The distrib expanded the film during mid-March to its widest count, at 282 locations.

“How can you do $7 million with an Iranian film and tell me that the audience isn’t there?” asked SPC co-prexy Michael Barker, referring to industrywide angst about the specialty biz.

And though nearly 20 films that opened this year at fewer than 800 locations have grossed a solid $2 million or more, dozens of titles, such as SPC’s “Darling Companion” and Focus’ “Being Flynn,” failed to find an audience.

Concerning “To Rome With Love,” Barker doesn’t seem too worried about comparisons being made to Allen’s boffo specialty pic (and last year’s Cannes opener) “Midnight in Paris.” That pic cumed north of $56 million, after 11 months of theatrical playtime — second only to 2000′s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” for SPC.

“To Rome With Love” reached $1 million after only its second weekend, though its pace is much slower than “Paris,” which hit that milestone after one full week.

Fox Searchlight’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which last weekend scored the year’s third-best per-screen average of $42,426, expands today to 19 playdates. But enthusiastic reviews and Cannes and Sundance prizes can’t predict just how wide an audience the unusual swamp drama will attract.

Other specialty successes included Millennium Entertainment’s black comedy “Bernie” and Roadside Attractions’ adult laffer “Friends with Kids,” both of which have cumed more than $7 million domestically.

The Weinstein Co.’s local French hit “The Intouchables” so far has reached nearly $3 million, roughly the same as the year’s top docu, “Bully.” Will Ferrell comedy “Casa de mi padre” attracted both Latino and mainstream moviegoers, cuming almost $6 million.

“It’s still a tough market out there,” Focus’ Foley warned. “Word-of-mouth becomes your best friend. That validation is still king.”

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