Gauls just want to have fun

Laffers like 'Chou' and 'Beuze' draw auds

PARIS — Star appeal, moderate budgets and a genre ideal for repeat television viewing — welcome to the tres drole world of French comedy pics. In a shaky year at the Gallic box office, with figures for June 2003 off 21% over the same time last year, hit laffers like “Chouchou” and “La Beuze” have provided some much needed oomph. There is more humor in the pipeline, as producers tap the skills of a new generation of comics whose routines have been honed on Gaul’s ultra-competitive standup circuit — and reached mass audiences via television.

But France’s comedy trend isn’t entirely spontaneous. With the beleaguered Canal Plus no longer taking pay TV rights to everything that’s out there, terrestrial broadcasters — French cinema’s other paymasters — have more influence on the kinds of French pics being made. And comedies clearly have greater appeal to their advertisers than edgier auteur fare.

“More than ever we’re looking to invest in comedies,” M6 Films managing director Lionel Amont says. “They’re just the sort of movies we need for our primetime evening slot, appealing to both young and family audiences.”

Thanks to star turns on popular television, this new generation of comics has built up a solid fan base now making its presence felt at the local multiplex. “What’s going on in France is a bit like what happened in the U.S. — TV comedians who in the past would never have broken into movies are being given their chance by film producers because they’ve shown they can guarantee a decent take at the box office,” says Artmedia agent Bertrand de Labbey, who reps comedian Jamel Debouzze.

Stars of the new pics are part of an old tradition, says producer Christian Fechner. “The majority of prominent French comic actors have always come from music hall — stand-up if you like. Actors like Gad Elmaleh and Eric & Ramzy are the inheritors of this old tradition of Bourvil, Fernandel, Louis de Funes, Coluche.”

Fechner, whose more than 30 comedy credits include the Louis de Funes classic “L’aile ou la Cuisse” (The Wing and the Thigh) produced the $8 million “Chouchou,” the first pic in a four-film co-production deal with Warner France. As well as being a Franco box office hit, the fish-out-of-water tale about a North African transvestite, written by star Gad Elmaleh from one of his stand-up routines, has secured distribution deals in several European countries.

With Gallic production coin less plentiful than in the past, comedy pics have another selling point. “They attract producers because they are frequently less expensive to make than costume dramas or f/x adventures,” says Benoit Danard, head of statistical research at the National Center for Cinema. “They also treat subjects which normal French people can empathize with, which is not always the case with other genres.” This type of accessibility has been pounced upon by French television chains like TF1, M6 and paybox Canal Plus, who are investing heavily in the comedy genre.

“Comedy films are an ideal acquisition for television chains,” says Olivier Snanoudj, director of the Gallic exhibitors federation FNCF. “They’re a tried and tested form of entertainment; they stand up to repeat viewing.” Box office figures from the last three years shows that out of 18 comedy pics released nationwide, 14 have sold at least a million tickets, and several much more. M6 also co-produced this year’s $18 million grossing “La Beuze,” a pot-smoking comedy built around the freewheeling antics of star Michael Youn.

M6 will link with Vertigo Prods and Studio Canal to produce Youn’s follow-up pic, an adaptation of the popular French comic strip “Iznogoud,” about a power-hungry sultan.

Already in production is the $30 million “Double Zero,” a loose remake of John Landis’ 1985 comedy “Spies Like Us” starring Eric and Ramzy. M6 and Thomas Langmann are co-producing. Eric and Ramzy will also star in UGC-produced “The Daltons,” a $25 million comedy Western based on the “Lucky Luke” comic strip.

Also lensing is “RRRrrrr,” helmer Alain Chabat’s follow-up to “Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra.” Described as a “prehistoric” comedy, pic stars Canal Plus comics “The Robin Hoods” and is being produced by Chabat’s production company Chez Wam in a linkup with TFI and Studio Canal. Chabat, along with former Canal Plus channel topper Dominique Farrugia, is also developing “Le Pacte des Poules,” (Brotherhood of the Hens) a spoof inspired by the Christophe Gans actioner “Brotherhood of the Wolf.”

(Alison James contributed to this report.)