It’s become a Bavarian rite of summer. With Germany and the rest of continental Europe swooning through the dog days of August, local audiences flock to the cinema to catch the latest capers of detective Franz Eberhofer, the star of a crime comedy franchise based on a series of best-selling novels. As temperature soar, so do ticket sales for what’s become one of Germany’s most sure-fire box office hits.
But don’t expect to catch “Leberkäsjunkie” (The Meatloaf Addict) anytime soon at a theater near you. The fifth installment in the Eberhofer franchise has hardly traveled beyond Bavaria, even as it’s become Germany’s second highest-grossing domestic film of 2019 ($10 million). “It’s a huge social event in parts of Bavaria,” says Martin Moszkowicz, executive chairman of Constantin Film, which distributes the film. “It’s a real phenomenon.”
That phenomenon is part of a broader trend across Europe, where blockbuster local-language hits are anchoring domestic markets, even while their commercial prospects abroad remain slim. Audiences outside Spain aren’t likely to lay eyes on Sony’s “Padre no hay más que uno” (Father There Is Only One), a comedy sensation that went toe to toe with the likes of “The Lion King” and “Toy Story 4” over the summer en route to grossing more than $15.6 million domestically. Poland’s “Miszmasz czyli Kogel Mogel 3” (Eggnog 3) has held off “Avengers: Endgame” to reign as the country’s box-office champ ($12.9 million) this year, even if you’re not likely to see the film in cinemas west of Warsaw.
In post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-refugee-crisis Europe, borders are closing, populist rhetoric is heating up and nationalist politics are threatening to undo all the gains and good will of the continent’s decades-long experiment with a frictionless, borderless union. Europe has become a continent divided, with many countries increasingly turning inward. Could the same dynamic be playing out at the box office?
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The short answer, to borrow a page from ongoing Brexit negotiations, is that it’s far more complicated than it seems. Local market share in 2018 was certainly robust for countries like France (40%) and Poland (33%), but across Europe, Hollywood is still the dominant player. Just two of last year’s top 20 films in the E.U. came from outside the U.S. (“Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” both U.K. productions), and overall box-office success in Europe — as with the rest of the world — can largely be measured by how many costumed heroes are flexing their muscles at the local multiplex.
Nevertheless, “there is a strong correlation between the success of local films and national box-office growth [in Europe],” says Laura Houlgatte, CEO of the Intl. Union of Cinemas (UNIC). Last year, local productions topped the box office in Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Serbia — markets that are each experiencing sustained growth — beating out the likes of “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Incredibles 2.” The appeal of films such as “Klassikokkutulek 2” (Class Reunion 2) or “Tarp pilkų debesų” (Ashes in the Snow) might not travel or translate to foreign markets, but “these local industries have managed to compete with U.S. productions, illustrating audience appetite for local and diverse content,” says Houlgatte.
Consider Poland, Europe’s sixth-largest theatrical market, which broke box-office records in 2018 for the fifth year running with a $275 million total — a trend powered by local titles that were the year’s four highest-grossing films. This year, Polish cinemas are on track to again surpass those record tallies, thanks in large part to a pair of homegrown comic franchises whose latest installments — “Miszmasz czyli Kogel Mogel 3” and “Planeta Singli 3” (Singles Planet 3) — account for two of the year’s three biggest hits.
Such films can tap into audience desires that aren’t easily met by homogenous Hollywood blockbusters. “As far as ‘Miszmasz’ goes, it may well be a cultural specificity — the language and local setting are essential to this kind of humor,” says Joanna Jakubik of Next Film, which released the film in Poland. That sense of place can also explain why a film like “Miszmasz 3,” which reboots a beloved ’80s franchise, doesn’t necessarily work overseas. The movie depicts “a very bizarre time in Polish history that is hard to understand abroad, but may easily put a smile on a Polish face,” says Jakubik.
Not all of this year’s biggest hits in Europe are entirely homegrown phenomena. Constantin’s “Das perfekte Geheimnis” (The Perfect Secret), which has raked in more than $27 million in Germany and is the top-grossing German-language film this year, is a remake of the Italian hit “Perfetti sconosciuti” (Perfect Strangers), a worldwide sensation since its 2016 release. Both “Padre no hay más que uno” and “Lo dejo cuando quiera” (I Can Quit Whenever I Want), which grossed nearly $13 million in Spain, are remakes of foreign films that were massive hits in their respective territories.
How that I.P. is produced and packaged in other markets determines whether or not it will succeed across borders. “The premise of [Sony Pictures Releasing’s ‘Padre’] does travel,” says Ivan Losada, managing director of Sony Pictures Iberia. “But the challenge is how you turn a universal concept into a local success, and the only way is to make it culturally relevant. And the cultural relevance can be built through the local talent involved, the marketing strategy decisions, the local message selling and of course the distribution muscle.”
After a down year that saw gross box office across the E.U. drop by 3.3% in 2018 to $7.5 billion, the continent is on the rebound. Italy’s summer box office was up 40% over the previous two years, with box-office returns up 20% from 2018 through the end of August. After total B.O. last year plummeted 16% to $923 million, Germany is on track for a double-digit recovery; so is Spain, where total box office dipped 2% in 2018. France, the E.U.’s leading cinema market, is expected to rebound from a 3% box-office drop last year to one of the country’s three highest-performing years since 1966, according to UNIC’s Houlgatte.
France’s recovery has been bolstered by the massive success of “Qu’est-ce qu’on a (encore) fait au Bon Dieu?” (Serial (Bad) Weddings 2), a follow-up to the 2014 comedy smash hit, which grossed $53.5 million domestically. “Nous finirons ensemble” (Little White Lies 2), the sequel to writer-director Guillaume Canet’s 2010 French phenom, also finished strong, pulling in $23.5 million. Both had built-in audiences to rely on and sold briskly overseas — not uncommon, for one of the world’s biggest movie exporters — but France’s other top performers this year caught many prognosticators by surprise. Twelve months ago, few would have forecast that “Au nom de la terre” (In the Name of the Land), an intimate family drama about a farmer struggling to stay afloat, would become one of the year’s five highest-grossing French films ($14.9 million).
“Those big breakout hits are not predictable,” says Sébastien Careil, head of marketing at Pathé, which released “Little White Lies 2.” While Careil characterized 2019 as a “strong” year for French cinema, he noted that a number of commercial, star-driven films that seemed sure to woo French audiences underperformed, while several smaller, more socially conscious films exceeded all expectations. “Is it going to be a new trend, or is it an exception for this year?” says Careil. “It’s too soon to tell.”
Nevertheless, European box office in the years to come will likely still be determined by whether such local-language titles sink or swim.