Surf’s up on the Riviera

Teen-pleasing comedy is Gaul's top local pic

PARIS — The French New Wave it isn’t.

But surf-themed teen comedy “Brice de Nice,” adapted for the bigscreen from a cult Internet phenom, has hit France like a tsunami.

The laffer, which cost a modest e5.7 million ($7.2 million) to make, has notched up more than 4 million admissions in Gaul, making it the year’s biggest grossing film until the recent release of “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.”

The “Brice” of the title is a wannabe surfer idling on the French Riviera, where his main pastime is hosting parties and inventing put-downs in best Cyrano fashion while waiting for the perfect wave. The joke is, of course, that the Mediterranean is singularly surf-free.

Instead of saying “Ca va?” — how are you doing — to his friends, the surf obsessed Brice says “Ca farte?” from the French verb “to wax,” as in what surfers do to their boards. It isn’t lost on giggling French schoolchildren that the word in question has a rather different meaning in English.

In his bedroom Brice has a shrine to Patrick Swayze and “Point Break,” which he watches over and over while reciting the dialogue word for word.

In recent decades, U.S. cinema has had plenty of Brice-style teen comedy hits: title character’s rampantly juvenile behavior and influence on schoolyard talk recalls, say, “Wayne’s World.”

But Brice is French cinema’s first teen hero — and what also sets him apart is the role the Internet played in elevating him to stardom.

The character was invented 10 years ago by then-unknown standup comic Jean Dujardin.

“Brice,” clad always in yellow, made a handful of minor TV appearances before Dujardin moved on to other things, eventually finding fame in TV sketch series “A Guy and a Girl.”

Internet sensation

But although Dujardin had forgotten “Brice,” teenage fans hadn’t. The character became an Internet phenom, his fame spreading thanks to a handful of Web sites created by a constituency of loyal fans.

“For a long time Jean had no idea what was going on. He’d never sent an email in his life,” recalls the film’s producer Eric Altmayer of shingle Mandarin Films.

The producer was clued in to the “Brice” Internet phenom thanks to a 15-year-old nephew.

Mandarin met to talk with Dujardin about another project when the subject of a Brice film came up. Altmayer and his producing-partner brother Nicolas were so taken with the concept that they “shook on it immediately,” says the producer.

Although France’s second web M6 has a first-look deal with Mandarin, the company teamed with TF1 on “Brice,” with distrib TFM handling the theatrical release, TF1 Intl. handling international sales and TF1 Video taking video rights.

“The people in the industry we were talking to had also never heard of Brice. But TF1 got it straight away, which is why we wanted to work with them,” Eric Altmayer says.

An “official” Brice Web site was central to the marketing strategy of the film and, masterminded by TF1’s Eric Driutty, bricedenice.com was up and running by the time the film went into production in April 2004. The site also had links to other fan Web sites.

“It was essential to involve Brice’s Internet fans from day one,” Altmayer says.

Dujardin and Karine Angeli, screenwriter on “A Guy and a Girl,” created a feature-length story around Brice and when helmer James Huth boarded the project, he added his own touches. Huth is best known for the wacky comedy “Serial Lover,” in which comedienne Michele Laroque either deliberately or accidentally bumps off four suitors in an evening of carnage.

“Bringing James to the project was an inspired move,” Altmayer says. “He is a real creator and he was able to boost Brice’s world, turning the film into more than your average teen comedy and widening its appeal.”

Detractors point out that although the pic moves at a lively pace, the storyline and gag quotient are rather weak. The film’s biggest trump card is clearly Dujardin himself, a big strapping lad with a toothpaste-ad smile and charm enough to be likable despite his obnoxious behavior.

“French cinema has been waiting for someone like Jean,” Altmayer opines.

Brice’s initial fan base was among 12- to 15-year-olds. If the pic had been a hit only with that demographic, it would have clocked up 2 million admissions, Mandarin’s target figure. Actual scores reflect the film’s success among younger auds, down to 8 years old, and their over-35 parents, Altmayer says.

Some $2.1 million was spent on p&a and the film bowed in April on 650 prints. Even after the massive bow of “Revenge of the Sith,” “Brice” was playing on 450 screens last week.

But will the boisterous French hero tickle funny bones beyond Gaul? Pic has sold to a dozen territories including French-speaking Canada, where Crystal will release it next month. TF1 Intl.’s big ambition is to sell the English-language remake rights.

“A number of buyers saw the film in Cannes and are very interested,” says TF1 Intl. sales topper Nicolas Eschbach.