Brit pix pair flip-flop on road stops

Domestic doldrums, o'seas success

LONDON — Which $5 million British comedy, “Kevin and Perry Go Large” or “Saving Grace,” was the bigger hit?

At home in Blighty, the answer seems obvious. “Kevin and Perry,” released by Icon, grossed $15 million in the U.K. “Saving Grace” scraped to $2.8 million on a wide multiplex release, way short of the $12 million targeted by 20th Century Fox.

But wait. The global perspective reveals a far different story. “Kevin and Perry,” a teen spinoff from a hit BBC TV show, has so far managed only an estimated $3 million in 10 territories beyond its home turf.

Indie success

“Saving Grace,” by contrast, has achieved the rare feat of turning domestic disappointment into foreign triumph. This gentle comedy about a dope-growing widow, played by Brenda Blethyn, has earned $23 million so far outside Britain, for a global total of $26 million. That makes it one of the most successful indie pics of the year.

Credit for that rests squarely with Portman Entertainment, the sales company that co-financed the pic alongside satcaster BSkyB’s movie arm Sky Pictures. Portman entrusted its local distribs with considerable autonomy to design their own marketing and release strategy, but also digested the lessons from the U.K. failure and passed them along.

Portman was aided considerably in its efforts by a determined campaign from U.S. distrib Fine Line Features, which bought the film for $4 million in a Sundance bidding war. Fine Line shrugged off the U.K. result and drove the film to a $12.5 million stateside gross, setting it up strongly for its opening in other territories.

Italy smoking

Highlights include $3 million from Germany, $700,000 in Israel, where it is still playing after five months and $500,000 from New Zealand. Australia and France underperformed, with $1 million and $750,000 apiece. But the best result of all was in Italy, where the pic has grossed $4 million and is still rising.

Italy’s Key Films staged a meticulous platform release, backed by four separate TV campaigns targeted at different demos. Film opened pre-Christmas on seven prints, then climbed by weekly stages to a maximum of 88, staying 10 weeks in the top 10.

Spain, Latin America, Eastern Europe and parts of the Far East have yet to release, but the only major territory still unsold is Japan, where distribs have so far deemed the pic insufficiently hip and edgy to appeal to their core teen audience.

All of which begs the question: What on earth went wrong in Britain? Hindsight says that Fox blundered by blasting out wide on 280 prints on the same weekend that “Gladiator” opened.

Care and feeding

Everywhere else in the world, the film has been nurtured with platform releases and word of mouth, particularly suitable for a middle-aged comedy. Fine Line, for example, started on 30 screens and built up to a peak of 874 over several weeks.

“It is a film that needs handling in such a way that critics and audiences are allowed to discover it for themselves at every stage of its journey,” says Portman managing director Tristan Whalley.

In the U.K., Fox also released a different version than the rest of the world, insisting on truncating the ending by two minutes and running the credits over the final sequence.

Writer/producer Mark Crowdy observes that Fox’s campaign, constructed with little input from the film’s creative team, emphasized the slapstick elements rather than the character-driven comedy. “Both (director) Nigel Cole and I didn’t really like the campaign from day one. They didn’t get the image right,” he says. “It was sold like a ‘Carry On’ film rather than an Ealing comedy.”

Fox trot

The whole U.K. situation was complicated by the backing of Sky Pictures, which meant that the film was originally intended to premiere on the satcaster day-and-date with its theatrical opening. Exhibitors rapidly nixed that notion, and Sky eventually agreed to a deal with sister company Fox to give selected pics a conventional theatrical run. “Saving Grace” was the first to be chosen.

No one suggests that Fox didn’t try hard enough. Fox’s U.K. managing director Peter Dignan told everyone he expected the pic to top $12 million. The fashion last year was for big releases of little Brit films, and “Saving Grace” wasn’t the only one to fall on its face.

“Kevin and Perry” was, by contrast, perfect Friday-night fodder for the multiplexes. Icon’s newly launched U.K. distrib arm won its spurs with by blanketing the local media, proving that a Brit film can make a profit from Blighty alone. It has also racked up vast video/DVD and record sales.

The film sold strongly to foreign distribs, trading on the hope that its gross-out humor would overcome cultural boundaries. But the weak international figures were hardly a surprise; pic was always considered likely to struggle in front of auds unfamiliar with the original TV show.

OK in Germany

“Kevin and Perry’s” best overseas tally so far is in Germany, where it managed $1 million. The biggest disappointment is Australia, usually receptive to Brit TV comedy, where it only reached $125,000.

Several key territories have yet to open, including the U.S., France, Spain, Italy and Japan. MTV and Paramount jointly picked up U.S. rights and were talking about a December release, but Par seems to have gotten cold feet after a poor test screening. Sources say the film is now unlikely to get a U.S. release.

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