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Comedies cross European borders

'Welcome to the Sticks' scores outside France

MADRID In January, no foreign buyers were interested when Gallic export org Unifrance screened “Welcome to the Sticks” at the Paris Rendez-Vous.

It played to hoots of laughter at a buyers screening, but Dany Boon’s laffer was written off by international distributors as a local comedy.

Ten months later, after grossing a record $150 million in France, “Sticks” has pulled a jolly $3.3 million in Italy in three frames.

Italo distributor Medusa is producing an Italian remake. In Germany, released by Prokino, “Sticks” is still ranking No. 2 in charts after three weeks, cuming $4 million and counting, a standout Teuton perf for a Gallic pic.

“Sticks” hasn’t conquered the entire world: Brits apparently didn’t see the humor, and although there’s a U.S. remake with Will Smith set up at Warners, as yet there’s no Stateside sale.

But European producers are hoping that “Sticks” will be the first of a wave of local comedies that travel beyond their borders.

Recently, a bevy of Euro comedies with a strong sense of place have broken out to festival recognition, sales and foreign B.O:

  • Sold by Bac, Romania’s “Silent Wedding,” set in a bucolic hamlet in 1953, was an AFM sales hit, pre-selling 10 territories including Germany (Tiberius) and Australia (Vendetta).

  • Iceland’s zonked-out laffer “Back Soon,” about a chain pot-smoking poetess, took a heartening $450,000 in France, and topped mid-November’s Seville European Festival.

  • Also at Seville, another laugh-out-loud Euro movie, German romantic comedy “Robert Zimmermann Is Tangled up in Love,” played to appreciative megaplex auds.

  • Serio-comedy “Moscow-Belgium,” set in a drab Belgian working class burb, has clinched 15-plus territory sales for Bavaria Film Intl. including Germany (Senator) and France (Bac).

  • One of the better sellers at Spain’s Imagina was “Chef’s Special,” about a cook who ditches dreams of Michelin stardom to manage a small barrio eatery. TLA has the U.K. and U.S.

  • From Italy, “Mid-August Lunch,” a bittersweet laffer about a bunch of lively octogenarian ladies being catered to by a boyish middle-aged boozer, took Venice’s Lion of the Future prize. Sales for Fandango Portobello include includes France (Le Pacte) and Germany (Pandora).

Pondering how producers can continue this trend, the European Film Academy has even organized a Dec. 6 conference to analyze the phenomenon, and its limitations: “What Makes Europe Laugh — Local Comedies for an International Market.” In feel-bad times, sales agents maintain, Europe, like the U.S., wants feel-good movies.

“Judging from the AFM, the world is looking for feel-good movies, films about weddings, cooking, music — anything uplifting and amusing. It’s such a fragile time in the world, and filmgoers need to be distracted from daily life,” says Nicole Mackey, senior VP, Fortissimo Sales, which is striking sales on Icelandic comedy “Country Wedding.”

“Comedies work abroad when they have heart, suggesting basic human values beyond moneymaking, economics and work,” agrees Muriel Sauzay, executive VP at Pathe Distribution, which handled “Sticks” international sales.

According to Film France managing director Patrick Lamassoure, “Sticks” has encouraged thousands of people to visit the quaint town of Bergues, where it was set. “These comedies aren’t just laughter for laughter’s sake. They can have strong social issues,” says Seville fest director Javier Martin Dominguez. The barriers are breaking down in Europe not only in terms of national borders, or genre, but also the audiences foreign-language films play to, and even the cinemas where they’re seen.

“Clear arthouse cinemas are dying out. Multiplexes are taking over accessible arthouse films. So the arthouse/ mainstream distinction is breaking up,” says BFI head Thorsten Ritter.

Local comedies aren’t always guaranteed money-minters abroad. Italy’s traditional Christmas laffers, for example, consistently stay within its own borders.

But, compared to even the recent past, local laffers are working in more of Europe than ever before. That should raise some smiles in grim times.

Nick Vivarelli, Derek Elley, Jay Weissberg and Ed Meza contributed to this report.

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