Laugh in any lingo

Toronto Film Festival: Euros in Toronto

Does comedy travel?

The conventional wisdom goes that wherever humor is based, it stays put. Ever since the talkies transformed the comedy landscape from slapstick to dialogue-driven, laffers in foreign tongues have tended to play best to hometown crowds. But breakouts do occur. Most recently, “The Hangover Part II” made a staggering $326 million overseas (more than 56% of its total global gross).

While Euro comedies still do the majority of their business at home, there have been a handful of lowbrow laffers and star-driven vehicles that have sold in far-flung territories and raked in additional ticket sales.

French comedian-director Dany Boon’s 2008 blockbuster comedy “Welcome to the Sticks” earned $51 million outside France, with more than $17 million coming from Germany.

“There was some doubts that it would take outside of France,” says Unifrance’s John Kochman. “But everyone was very pleased to see how well it did in Germany, Italy, Spain and even Australia.”

Kochman believes auds could relate to the film’s conflict between cynical northerners and country bumpkins. “It’s not a uniquely French phenomenon,” he says. Last year Italy even made its own successful version “Benvenuti al sud,” which, in turn, sold across Europe and earned more than $2 million in Spain.

But Kochman notes that the film’s humor had to be translated in certain territories, which made it a more easy fit. “It was dubbed in Spain and Italy,” he says, “so automatically, there was a much larger audience that distributors in those countries were able to reach.”

A good — and unique — dub was also one of the keys to the success of the Dutch comedy “New Kids Turbo” in Germany, according to Claudia Landsberger, head of Netherlands film promotional org EYE Intl. The filmmakers dubbed the movie themselves, and when the Dutch speak German, says Landsberger, “it sounds awfully funny.”

The film, which was adapted from a hit sketch Comedy Central show, also benefited from its “Dumb and Dumber”-style slapstick shtick, with little dialogue, more visual jokes and hapless men doing stupid things. “It’s a kind of humor that people enjoy very much when they’ve had a couple of beers,” notes Landsberger.

Similarly, the lewd Danish comedy “Clown the Movie” — described as “The Hangover” meets “The Office” — has done strong box office in Scandinavia. And while buyers from major Euro territories are still wary of the movie’s provocative laughs (it remains unsold in France and Germany), according to Zentropa producer Louise Vesth, the film’s recent win at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival “showed us that this kind of embarrassing humor really works across borders.”

Nationalist stereotypes also seem to travel well. For instance, Landsberger credits “Turbo’s” success, in part, to its embrace and send-up of Dutch cliches.

Likewise, the British Council’s Christine Bardsley says a number of U.K. comedies that have performed well abroad include “depictions of characters and locations that accord with international perceptions of stereotypical quirky Britishness.”

Citing the comedies of Simon Pegg (“Shaun of the Dead”) and Rowan Atkinson (“Mr. Bean’s Holiday”) as well as the “St. Trinian’s” franchise, she notes there’s also “a strong element of visual humor, which transcends language and cultural barriers” and “teen-friendly content” (most were rated PG or 12A).”

While German comedies have had a difficult time in a number of countries, Mariette Rissenbeek, the new exec director of promotional org German Films, says some Teutonic laffers work in Spain, Switzerland and Russia. The family-friendly comedy “Vicky the Viking” grossed well in Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, and the romantic comedies of Til Schweiger (“Rabbit Without Ears”) are highly exportable to the Ukraine.

Actor-director Schweiger’s good looks attract female auds, and “he has a good sense of commercial stories,” she says.

Historically, internationally recognizable stars have often helped foreign humor go down better abroad. The recent French-language Catherine Deneuve/Gerard Depardieu comedy “Potiche,” for instance, has performed well across Europe, and even earned a respectable $1.6 million Stateside, where it was released by Music Box Films.

“There’s a lot of cultural specificity in humor,” says Music Box’s Ed Arentz, who also brought French star Jean Dujardin’s spy spoofs “OSS 117” to U.S. shores (with less success), and admits that Euro comedies are hard to pin down for the North American market.

An English-subtitled print of “Welcome to the Sticks,” for example, came across “bizarre and distracting,” he says, “because they had to create this new language to make the jokes work.”

And prestige film festivals like Toronto often do little to embrace broader foreign-based humor. (At this year’s fest, there’s the Spanish-Cuban zombie movie “Juan of the Dead” and Lasse Hallstrom’s light British entry “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” but the program is largely dominated by higher-brow humor and more serious fare.)

Unfortunately for Euro comedians, foreign films will always be seen as arthouse titles in a U.S. market, which prefers literate, well-reviewed witticisms to class-conscious slapstick.

As Samuel Goldwyn’s acquisitions VP Peter Goldwyn says, “If you took a French Adam Sandler, it wouldn’t travel as well. These films come to the U.S. in a different way — as remakes.”


Laugh in any lingo

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