Participant Media has two very different projects with theatrical releases this weekend. The company partnered with producers of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, starring Dame Judi Dench, which Fox Searchlight is taking to theaters in the U.S. ATO Pictures meanwhile collaborated with Participant on its water crisis doc Last Call At The Oasis, which is set for a limited rollout via ATO. Also opening in the specialty arena today are the doc First Position from Sundance Selects and The Perfect Family, starring Kathleen Turner which will has a decidedly more DIY release strategy.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Director John Madden
Writers: Ol Parker (screenplay), Deborah Moggach (novel)
Cast: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith
Distributor: Fox Searchlight

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel producer Graham Broadbent and his team optioned novelist Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things because the concept of “personal crisis” had an appeal. The film centers on British retirees who travel to what they believe is a plush resort in India, only to find out it is less than expected. “We developed the script in the UK and landed [the final version of the script] from Ol Parker,” Broadbent told Deadline. “We approached Participant and asked if it fit in with their [focus] on social issues and then started talking to Fox Searchlight.” After partnering with Participant and Searchlight, there were some re-writes, but the production team was pleased with the results. They also tapped the experience of their producing partners. “Searchlight has had great experience shooting in India with The Darjeeling Limited and The Namesake,” he said.

Marigold shot in October 2010 in India, which Broadbent described as an “extraordinary, bewildering place.” They arrived with a small crew from the UK which was met by a massive team from India during their 45-day stay. “There were 350 people in the crew,” said Broadbent. “In the U.K. we’d expect maybe 120.” Bureaucracy and seasonal issues were challenges to shooting on the sub-continent and Broadbent noted that the window for outdoor production is about five months of the year. “After that it’s too hot and beyond that it’s the monsoon season,” he said.

First Position
Director: Bess Kargman
Subjects: Aran Bell, Gaya Bommer Yemini, Michaela Deprince
Distributor: Sundance Selects

Berlinale 2011 3D doc Pina proved a lucrative buy for IFC Films label Sundance Selects. Since its late December release, the Wim Wenders directed feature has grossed $3.5 million in the U.S. Now the label is going for a double hitter with a new dance documentary that follows six young dancers who prepare for one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world, the Youth America Grand Prix.

“We bought it because it’s a great audience film,” IFC Films/Sundance Selects exec Ryan Werner told Deadline. “We fell in love with these kids who are striving to do their best with the pressures they’re facing.” The distributor picked up the title at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and the film won awards at subsequent Doc NYC, Portland, Dallas and San Francisco festivals. “We’ve been working on this film since the release of Pina,” said Werner. “We’re working with 360 Communications, a grassroots marketing company we worked with on Buck and Pina to help.” Also sure to give the doc a push is the fact that one of its characters is on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars. Nightline and Good Morning America are doing stories on the film, which could provide a media boost for the doc. First Position is available on demand and will open in theaters in New York and L.A. this weekend. “We will roll out to top markets in the coming weeks,” added Werner. “We’re actively pursuing the dance community as we did for Pina, but also all people who are interested in a great story.”

Last Call At The Oasis
Director: Jessica Yu
Writer: Jessica Yu
Subjects: Erin Brockovich-Ellis, Jay Famiglietti, Peter H. Gleick
Distributor: ATO Pictures

Marketing a documentary about the world’s looming water crisis may be a tough sell at best. But there are potential strategiess to drum up interest at low to no cost and ATO has been working those avenues. Director Jessica Yu joined a packed house at the Ford Foundation in Manhattan last month for a screening of the film which kicked off the 4th annual “Envision” conference, which focuses on issues relating to a “sustainable future,” co-hosted by the UN and the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP). “Part of the publicity is reaching out to NGOs,” ATO Pictures co-president Jonathan Dorfman told Deadline. “And [partner] Participant has a lot of great relationships with those groups. Having Participant behind it was a big factor for us. They deliver on the docs.”

ATO first saw the film last year in Toronto and were impressed by its quality and the highly regarded people who appear in the feature. “There are serious experts like Erin Brokovich and others who know [a lot] about this,” noted Dorfamn who added that the famed environmental advocate made famous by Julia Roberts portrayal of her back in 2000 will be heading to Los Angeles post-screening Q&As at the Landmark today and has also been doing press to promote the film. In addition to LA, ATO Pictures will open Last Call At The Oasis in New York this weekend, with San Francisco planned for next week.

The Perfect Family
Director: Anne Renton
Writers: Paula Goldberg, Claire V. Riley
Cast: Kathleen Turner, Emily Deschanel, Jason Ritter
Distributor: Variance Pictures

Present Pictures co-founders Cora Olson and Jennifer Dubin have been instrumental in not only bringing The Perfect Family together as a production, but they’re also spearheading its release with partners. With a budget of less than $1 million and a script, they turned to actress Kathleen Turner for the main role of a devoutly Catholic wife who tries to mold her family into being “perfect” after receiving an award nomination from her church. “We were trying to put together as good of a cast as we possibly could to maximize attention and press,” Olson told Deadline. “Kathleen Turner was excited to work with a female director [Anne Renton], but she did insist on some script changes which we did to secure the relationship.” After spending a few months on the changes, Turner came on board. Olson and Dubin reached out to Deschanel whom they knew socially to join the cast and they also sought out Jason Ritter, who worked on their previous project Good Dick, which they also produced and released.

The Perfect Family shot 19 days in Los Angeles, which she said ran pretty smoothly. “Jen and I have done a lot of these types of films and it’s important to get crews who understand this kind of schedule,” she said. The film debuted last year at Tribeca and Present Pictures has partnered with Variance Pictures for the theatrical release. They’re also working with Virgil and Gravitas for non-theatrical as well as NYC-based PR and Online strategists Brigade for marketing. “We’re doing New York and Los Angeles as well as on demand Friday and adding 15 cities on May 11th,” said Olson who added that finding exhibitors willing to show a film with a VOD element is becoming increasingly difficult. “If you’re a Magnolia or an IFC it’s easier,” she said, also noting that they began reaching out to theaters last July. “The landscape has been changing very fast. I feel like we got lucky in getting the support of AMC on this. But it’s much harder now than ever.”