Summer summons warm laughter at the cinema

PARIS – A year after the runaway success of “Welcome to the Sticks,” French cinema continues to laugh its way to the bank. Through July, eight of the top 10 highest-grossing French films this year have been comedies.

But there are troubling signs ahead for the industry as box office results from theaters outside the Paris area are starting to feel the recession.

Recent hit comedies cover a wide spectrum — from dramedy “LOL,” to the gag-laden “Coco” to spy-spoof “OSS 117: Lost in Rio.”

And the biggest laffer of the lot is possibly yet to come: Family comedy “Le Petit Nicolas,” based on the beloved comicbook by Rene Goscinny and Sempe, bows Sept. 30 and is anticipated to tap into the huge reservoir of goodwill for the Nicolas character. Pic is packed with French box office draws, including Kad Merad (“Welcome to the Sticks”), Valerie Lemercier (“The Dinner Guest”) and Fabrice Luchini (“The Girl From Monaco”).

The 1950s-set comedy follows a 10-year-old boy whose ideal childhood gets turned upside down when he finds out his mother is expecting another child.

“We wanted to make a real family comedy. Hopefully, kids will recognize themselves, and parents will remember  their own childhood,” explains Fidelite Films producer Marc Missonnier. 

Also due out in September, TV network M6 builds on the Nicolas synergy by airing CG-toon series “Le Petit Nicolas,” co-produced by Aton Soumache’s Paris-based shingle Method Animation. 

A few more serious local titles have scored at the summer box office: humanist drama “Welcome,” about an unlikely friendship between a 17-year-old Kurdish refugee and a middle-aged Frenchman; and high-voltage actioner “District 13,” produced by Luc Besson.

Despite the absence of a blockbuster like “Welcome to the Sticks” this year, theater admissions were down only 4.3% through June, according to France’s CNC film board.

But the recession, which is likely fueling the appetite for laughs, is also causing a growing gulf between theater admissions in Paris and the rest of France. Even this year’s highest-grossing French laffer, “LOL,” couldn’t tally more than 3.5 million admissions because it didn’t expand wide enough from its Paris base. 

“Theater admissions are still strong in big cities, but we know that the recession is slowly catching up with the film industry,” says Philippe Desandre, StudioCanal’s distribution topper. “And smaller exhibitors are the first affected.”

In the first half of the year, admissions rose 10% in Paris and 4% in other big cities, but plummeted by 12% in medium-sized cities and 22% in small towns.

Since 40% of French theater screens are located in rural areas — whereas Paris has only 18%, the key to B.O. success in France is to reach deep into rural areas, says Francois Clerc, Gaumont’s distribution topper.

Upcoming French releases that have potential to reach broad auds across the nationinclude Jacques Audiard’s gripping crime drama “A Prophet,” which nabbed the Jury Prize in Cannes, about a 19-year-old French-Arab thug’s education behind bars.

Auds needing their fix of “Welcome to the Sticks” helmer-star Dany Boon will get a chance with “Micmacs a tire-larigot,”  a satire about an ordinary man who goes after powerful gun traders,  helmed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Boon co-stars with Yolande Moreau (“Seraphine”).

Luc Besson’s toon, “Arthur and the Vengeance of  Maltazard,” set to open in Gaul on Dec. 2, also is expected to draw good auds.  A mix of live action and CG animation, the pic is a sequel to “Arthur and the Minimoys,” which grossed $54 million on 6.3 million admission in 2006.

John Hopewell contributed to this report.

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