Every few years, a broad comedy catches France by storm, while causing barely a ripple in the U.S. Whereas Hollywood studio comedies tend to perform well in France, mainstream American moviegoers couldn’t be less interested in what makes the French laugh.
Los Angeles’ annual Colcoa French Film Festival is as good a place as any to sample a Gallic tickler. Given the event’s proximity to Hollywood — and the fact that many agents and industry pros scour Colcoa for fresh French talent — festival director Francois Truffart tends to favor polished, populist offerings over the more esoteric auteur fare featured at other Gallic film showcases.
“This year, we have a lot of comedy in the lineup,” Truffart tells Variety, unspooling such laffers as Anne Fontaine’s “Gemma Bovery” and Fanny Ardant starrer “Chic!” this week. “A few years ago, we opened the festival with Dany Boon’s fil, ‘Welcome to the Sticks.’”
“Sticks” earned $193.7 million in France. But Boon’s made-up hillbilly dialect, which delighted native speakers, didn’t exactly translate in subtitles, and after relocating to L.A. to develop a remake and other projects, Boon has reportedly left town.
When Ed Arentz launched Music Box Films, “It was a general rule of thumb that anything commercially popular in Europe was, by definition, not suitable for import into the U.S.,” he recalls. “We saw the falseness of that with the first couple of films we released.”
French thriller “Tell No One” put the company on the map, earning a cool $6 million, while spy spoof “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” did decent theatrical business (around $300,000), generating solidly on homevideo ever since — especially after the attention “The Artist” brought to star Jean Dujardin and director Michel Hazanavicius. (“Cairo” is being screened at this year’s Colcoa as part of its Focus on Filmmaker tribute to Hazanavicius.)
Last year in France, a comedy “Serial (Bad) Weddings” earned nearly $105 million in Gaul and $44 million more abroad — big enough numbers to get Hollywood’s attention, right? And yet no U.S. distributor will touch the TF1 title, in which an old-school Catholic patriarch is horrified when each of his four daughters chooses to marry someone of a different cultural background.
The year before, Guillaume Gallienne’s “Me, Myself and Mum” — about an identity-challenged guy whom everyone is convinced is gay — delighted locals and scored five Cesar awards, but also failed to land a U.S. release. Like “Weddings,” some consider the film too politically incorrect for American auds, if that’s even possible.
“I think we do have a kind of savoir faire involving social comedies, where French audiences are comfortable talking about sensitive subjects, like racism or the handicapped,” says UniFrance managing director Isabelle Giordano, citing 2012 hit “Paulette,” in which a cash-strapped elderly woman resorts to pot dealing, and “The Intouchables” (the 2012 Colcola closer), which scored a stunning $10.2 million for the Weinstein Co. (despite accusations of racism in its Variety review).
Still the challenge remains that American audiences don’t read subtitles and arthouse-goers prefer edgier, more sophisticated French pics.
That leaves the possibility of remake rights — an arena where many high-concept French comedies have scored big. And Colcoa also remains a great place to evaluate that potential.