Gauls await more fin in sun

'Friends' bows nationwide Feb. 1 on 950 screens

PARIS — Warner Bros. France is gearing up for a “Harry Potter”-scale release for “Friends Forever,” a much-hyped sequel to the 28-year-old cult Gallic comedy franchise “Les Bronzes.”

Pic, written by and starring five of France’s biggest box office stars, bows nationwide Feb. 1 on 950 screens.

Two weeks ahead of that date, the film’s notoriety among members of the public was an unheard-of  99%, and 53% said they were intending to see it. By comparison, intentions to see the last “Harry Potter” movie were around the 30% mark.

Warner Bros. has spent a mere E1.5 million ($1.8 million) on P&A — half the amount it would usually shell out on a release of this size.

“There is so much buzz about the film already that we have to be careful not to overdose the public,” Warner Bros. France topper Francis Boespflug says.

For the same reason, there will be none of the for-the-public preems that usually take place all over France.

“We want people to discover the film the day it is released,” Boespflug says.

Despite the white-hot buzz in France — some pundits are tipping the movie to outperform “Harry Potter,” Warner Bros. France’s biggest grossing pic to date — in the rest of the world, “Les Bronzes” is virtually unknown.

The first pic, “Les Bronzes,” (literally “the tanned ones,” released under the English title “French Fried Vacation”) in 1978,  followed the antics of a group of young French people vacationing in a resort on the Ivory Coast. Series is roughly comparable to a cross between “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “Baywatch,” but handled with more Gallic directorial flair). “Les Bronzes font du ski,” a sequel that came out a year later, took the same characters to a ski resort in the Alps.

More than two decades later and after countless airings, both movies continue to top Gallic TV ratings whenever they are scheduled. The comedy troupe behind them — Thierry Lhermitte, Joisane Balasko, Michel Blanc, Gerard Jugnot (star of “Les Choristes”) Marie-Anne Chazel and Christian Clavier — have all become established thesps with an array of writing and directing credits under their belts.

Patrice Leconte, who helmed and co-wrote the first two and is back behind the camera for the third film, has in the meantime directed much more prestigious fare such as “The Widow of Saint Pierre,” “Ridicule,” and “The Girl on the Bridge.”

For the latest installment, a new producer has taken the reins. After netting a fortune with the first two movies, producer Yves Rousset-Rouard quit the film biz to take up winemaking in the Luberon. Latest pic is produced by Christian Fechner, who has made a number of movies with Leconte and several of the other talents.

According to estimates, “Friends Forever” will need a hefty seven million admissions to recoup the E35 million ($42 million) spent on it. Warner Bros. France, whose biggest French success to date was the laffer “Would I Lie to You 2” (7.3 million admissions), ponied up some $12 million for Gallic distribution.

Despite France’s auteur bent, when they hit the right note, local laffers tend to rule at the Gallic box office. The genre’s gold standard is “Asterix and Obelix,” the sequel to which notched 14.5 million admissions in 2002. In France, such a score implies large numbers of cinemagoers seeing the film more than once.

Could “Friends Forever” achieve those heights?

A lot of people in the French film biz believe it will be near the top of the year’s box office charts. Just how massive its impact, however, remains to be seen.

Club Med resorts weren’t particularly glamorous in the 1970s, and millions of average French folk identified with the young holidaymakers in “Les Bronzes.” The new pic places its cast in a more upscale setting — a luxury resort in Sicily owned in real life by the Aga Kahn — and that might narrow its appeal, say some pundits.

“Lhermitte and co. are all wealthy, successful people today. Are they still in touch with the public?” was how one Gallic film bizzer put it.

Also, will the sequel have the same youth appeal as last year’s cult laffer “Brice de Nice,” starring the goofy but young and handsome Jean Dujardin?

Funny though they undoubtedly still are, Lhermitte and company might have less box appeal now that they are 25 years older.

But Warner Bros. Boespflug isn’t overly worried.

“People have been waiting for this film for years,” he says.

As for its chances internationally, distrib Roissy Films will wait until after its French release to screen the pic to buyers at the upcoming Berlin Film Market.

“It’s a very visual film, and with the right dubbing, it could work with audiences beyond France,” asserts Roissy’s prexy Raphael Berdugo.

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