Amid the onslaught of franchises, superheroes and fantasy adventures that dominated the 2012 summer box office (see Richard Corliss’ complete summer box office coverage), independent films carved out their own lucrative corner of the global box office, turning relatively modest investments into massive payouts.
In terms of raw receipts, the most profitable indie of the season turned out to be the British comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, starring Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson, which converted a $10 million budget into at least $131 million worldwide (and more than $45 million in the U.S. alone).
Marigold Hotel director John Madden used the star-power of Dame Dench and her supporting cast of seniors to tell the story of an aging group of Europeans looking to retire at a luxurious India hotel. By opening the film—an obvious draw for the older set—just as younger moviegoers clamored to get into The Avengers, Marigold Hotel offered a timely alternative to a key demographic.
“Timing is always a big thing with independent films,” Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, tells TIME. “Reviews are huge for films like this. It helps sustain a film and grow in the marketplace. If the per-theater average holds strong, you’ll get a wider release from the weeks to come.”
Positive reviews fueled a similar success story in the case of Beasts of the Southern Wild, which stars 8-year-old newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis. This expressive and artistic festival favorite converted a $1.3 million budget into more than $8 domestically, and Bock says continues to screen in hundreds of theaters nationwide.
In the case of Beasts, strong buzz at the Sundance Film Festival led to a June 27 limited release in New York and Los Angeles. By the end of opening weekend, enthusiasm about Wallis’ fearless, ferocious performance was already reaching a critical mass. (the film tells the story of a fictional impoverished island in the Louisiana Delta—known as the Bathtub—dealing with an environmental crisis that unleashes prehistoric auroch creatures) “There is always room for independent films in the summertime in the midst of the big blockbusters,” Bock says. “It is finding the right couple of weekends to start out with and then expand.”
(Read Richard Corliss’ review of Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Of course, there were numerous notable mainstream standouts as well. One surprise hit was Magic Mike, which made more than $110 million from a budget of around $7 million. But that pales in comparison to the business that was done by The Avengers ($617 million), The Dark Knight Rises ($413 million) and The Hunger Games ($407 million).
And the year isn’t over yet. Bock says one notable new film to watch is the independent documentary Obama’s America by Rocky Mountain Pictures (read TIME’s review), which has already pulled in $2 million in a limited release and has “Obama haters lined up.” Even before the weekend, he said he expected the film’s expanded release to elevate the doc into the weekly top 10. “Any time an independent documentary can pull that off it is pretty spectacular.”
It’s going to take a lot of weekends, though, to catch Quvenzhané Wallis.