Canucks chuck ‘West’ for homegrown ‘Elvis’

Pic's B.O. roughly $100,000 more than 'Phantom' weekend debut

Elvis has returned to the building.

In this instance, it happens to be a multiplex.

While Americans were eating up “Wild Wild West” as their holiday movie treat, the Quebecois were celebrating Canada Day (July 1) with the record local opening of the homegrown “Elvis Gratton II — Miracle in Memphis.” The broad comic social satire racked up C$1 million ($680,000) in Quebec for the four-day weekend from 91 engagements. More than doubling “West’s” take for the same period, pic’s box office was roughly $100,000 bigger than the weekend debut of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”

“The character is very well known in Quebec,” co-producer Bernadette Payeur said. “We knew a sequel had tremendous appeal, but there’s no way to explain why it should open so huge.”

The yarn of a garage mechanic who moonlights as an Elvis impersonator, the Lions Gate release easily bested last year’s hockey comedy “Les Boys II,” which earned C$670,000 in its weekend debut, and even beat the launch of the 1981 Canadian tax shelter “Porky’s,” which did an estimated C$850,000 at the B.O. and remains the champ in opening ticket sales.

Though an immediate box office sensation, “Elvis Gratton II — Miracle in Memphis” was roundly trounced by local critics as “vile,” “crass” and “tacky.”

“It was a gamble for us,” admitted Lions Gate exec VP Christian Larouche. “Despite the character’s popularity for all ages, we knew we could get killed by playing opposite the big Hollywood movies. It meant having a very big ad campaign and increasing our risk. Now we feel justified.”

Created by filmmaker Pierre Falardeau and actor Julien Poulin, Elvis Gratton first popped up in the early 1980s in a short that was prized at the Canadian film awards. In 1985, the original was coupled with two other “Elvis” vignettes and received a brief theatrical run in Quebec. The character’s cult status continued to grow with brisk sales on videocassette and cable revivals.

Falardeau, meanwhile, evolved as one of Canada’s most controversial writer-directors. He took a critical look at the prison system in 1990’s “Le Party,” and his characterization of the kidnapping (and subsequent killing) of politician Pierre Laporte in “Octobre” created a firestorm for its sympathetic view of the separatist ring. His long-cherished project about the roots of Quebec separatism, “Le Patriote –1838,” only recently received government funding after it was cold-shouldered for several years.

Payeur said that Falardeau had done an “Elvis” sequel outline in 1988 with the possibility that another director would take it on. Delays in starting “Le Patriote” (now scheduled to shoot next January) renewed his interest in reviving the cult character, and talks are already under way for a third installment.

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