It's pretty rare for a little indie movie to break into the box office top 10 in its fourth week of release. Rarer still if the movie has an audience-unfriendly title or a Middle Eastern setting or an AARP-aged audience. But that's what happened this weekend with "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," which vaulted to No. 7 and collected an estimated $1.3 million (up 81 percent from a week ago).
The box office feat is just the latest milestone for a film that does, after all, feature two top-flight romantic comedy leads (Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt) and has proved itself a crowdpleaser since making its mark last fall at the Toronto Film Festival. But given its positive word-of-mouth, CBS Films believes the movie could be a spring sleeper that slowly but steadily nets a windfall as it plays for months.
Here's why "Salmon Fishing" is a movie to watch, or at least keep an eye out for.
- It's a movie about the Middle East without the violent strife. The premise, based on Paul Torday's bestselling novel, centers on the vanity project of a charismatic and wealthy Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked) to transplant his beloved sport of salmon fishing to his desert country as a way of bringing people together. His Western aide (Blunt) helps him reach out to a British fisheries scientist (McGregor) who finds the idea absurd and impossible. But an opportunistic British pol (Kristin Scott Thomas), looking to create a positive story about Anglo-Yemeni relations, fast-tracks the project, and soon McGregor's character is broadening his horizons and being captivated by both his eccentric benefactor and by the vinegary Blunt. In other words, it takes one of the world's most fractious possible settings and plants there a light comic love story with some unobjectionable points about faith, dreams, peace, and love. What's not to like?
- It has a charming cast. There's the always appealing McGregor and Blunt, of course, both of whom have decent box office track records. But Scott Thomas is also getting credit as a scene stealer, and Waked's performance could make him a star in the West.
- It plays to an audience movie studios tend to ignore. That's the over-50 crowd, whom Hollywood pretends doesn't exist except when it's time to release the annual Liam Neeson action thriller. But over-50s don't just want to see one of their own kicking butt; they also like love stories, sophisticated comedies, foreign films and movies about faith. So "Salmon Fishing" seems tailor-made for older audiences who might prefer romantic sparks to exploding fireballs. Plus, there are no other movies in the top 15 catering to such an audience. "We're reaping the benefit of the fact that there's been nothing in the market for this demographic in the past few weeks," said Steven Friedlander, CBS Films' executive vice president for distribution, to The Wrap.
- It's generating strong word-of-mouth. So says Freidlander, who adds that the movie's buzz is real word-of-mouth, not just social media chatter. (Apparently, older folk who talk about movies actually talk about them instead of Tweeting and texting.) The last movie that became an indie sleeper hit this way was "Midnight in Paris," which made $57 million last year and lingered in theaters for 10 months.
- The filmmakers know quirk. Since his debut feature, 1985's cult fave, "My Life as a Dog," director Lasse Hallstrom has specialized in movies about oddballs who live in strange, remote communities full of fellow oddballs. Think the morose Johnny Depp in the dead-end Iowa town of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," or naive medic Tobey Maguire in the orphanage in "The Cider House Rules," or confectioner Juliette Binoche in the pleasure-averse village in "Chocolat." Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy also specializes in movies about unusual communities, like "The Full Monty" and "Slumdog Millionaire." So "Salmon Fishing" is right in their wheelhouse.
- It shows CBS Films is on a roll. The two-year-old distributor has released just seven movies. All but two have topped out at under $30 million, despite the presence of such stars as Harrison Ford ("Extreme Measures"), The Rock ("Faster"), or Jason Statham ("The Mechanic"). But the shingle had a decent-sized hit earlier this year with the Daniel Radcliffe horror import "The Woman in Black" (54 million) and now with "Salmon Fishing," which it purchased for about $5 million (a sum it should easily recoup in the next couple of weeks).
- It's No. 7 with a bullet. In its fourth weekend, the movie expanded from 124 theaters to 483. That's a pretty big leap, but the film's $1.3 million weekend take makes that look like a wise move. It finished in seventh place, two slots ahead of Eddie Murphy's "A Thousand Words," which has been out for the same four weekends but earned just $915,000 this time around, even though it's playing on more than twice as many screens. To date, "Salmon Fishing" has earned an estimated $3.2 million, and as it continues to expand, it should keep gaining momentum from its current bounce. It's not going to knock off "The Hunger Games," but given how few smart comedies will be in wide distribution this month, "Salmon Fishing" should have the revenue stream to itself for a while.
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