Foreign funny bones harder to tickle

Thanks to “The Wedding Crashers” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Hollywood is once again enamored of R-rated comedies, an endangered species in the past few years.

While studios are now eagerly developing this fare, there remains the question of overseas. Comedy doesn’t travel easily and R-rated fare is even trickier. But with “Crashers” and “Virgin” doing so well in the U.S., and hefty DVD assured, should overseas even be a factor?

Despite a strong foreign appetite for action, epics and family fare, there’s only modest support overseas for raunchy American comedies aimed at adults. And it’s a rare instance in which an adult comedy manages to generate a bigger gross overseas than domestically.

Joe Ortiz, Fox’s exec director of international distribution, notes that general expectations for foreign box office on such comedies are for about half the domestic gross as with “Sideways,” which grossed $71 million Stateside and $37 million overseas.

“No matter how funny something is to us, there are going to be people in other countries are going to see it and go ‘Huh?’ ” he adds.

“Comedy isn’t as global as action or epics,” admits New Line Intl. president Camela Galano. “The themes in this comedy aren’t as universal.”

“Crashers” should clear $200 million mark domestically but it looks likely to gross perhaps a third of that overseas by the end of its run. The Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson vehicle’s taken in a moderate $42 million for New Line overseas, with slightly over half that in the U.K. — traditionally the best market for American comedies — along with $9 million in Australia.

The road’s been a bit rocky elsewhere. In Germany, “Crashers” simply didn’t catch on and grossed a mere $2.7 million since opening day-and-date with the U.S. release in early July.

It’s not like Germans won’t support comedy — “Hitch” took in an impressive $34 million. But selling “Wedding Crashers” overseas is tricky.

“The idea of going to a wedding if you’re not invited is something that’s a little too foreign in some markets,” Galano notes.

New Line had reason to feel somewhat optimistic about Germany, having already registered a decent performance of $6.3 million in that market from another wedding-themed comedy, “Monster-in-Law.” But that film had the benefit of star power via Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez plus the more universal theme of a conniving mother-in-law.

As for “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” UIP’s starting the overseas run this weekend in the U.K. after a decent night of previews last weekend with $1.1 million on 300 screens. It’s going to open gradually in other European markets.

UIP prexy Andrew Cripps is cautiously optimistic and hoping for a reaction similar to the “American Pie” trilogy — which was a surprise success overseas with the foreign gross of the three films matching the $350 million domestic gross.

“Humor is very tough to handle in foreign markets, particularly for Asia,” he notes. “The jokes in American movies don’t always translate well.”

BVI senior VP David Kornblum believes that R-rated and adult-oriented comedies can succeed overseas if they are dominated by physical humor and recognizable themes.

“You need the visual and the familiar to make it work the best like with the ‘American Pie’ films, where there were sight gags and a romantic filling to that pie,” he notes.

Most successful adult-oriented comedies can look to get about half the domestic gross from overseas markets, such as “Dodgeball,” which took in $53 million overseas after a $113 million domestic run.

But some comedies are too unique to the American culture to travel. “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and “Old School” hardly registered outside the United States. After grossing $85 million and $75 million domestically, their foreign takes were $5 million and $16 million, respectively.

The recent singular success story among adult comedies has been “Hitch.” Will Smith’s rom-com took in nearly $190 million overseas after grossing $180 million Stateside — a feat managed by only a few others such as “There’s Something About Mary,” “American Wedding,” “Intolerable Cruelty” and, oddly enough, “The Sweetest Thing.”

Outgrossing the domestic even eluded such comedy blockbusters such as “Bruce Almighty,” “Meet the Fockers,” “Meet the Parents” and “Austin Powers in Goldmember.”

” ‘Hitch’ really worked well because of the universality of the themes and the presence of Will Smith,” says Columbia TriStar senior VP Jay Sands. “And Will is one of the best in business at promoting. He was everywhere we asked him to be.”

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