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Berlin 2012: European Comedies Enjoying Pan-European Success

Nicola Dove/Courtest of Film4

Local-language laffers such as “Untouchables” and “The Inbetweeners” fill a gap left by fewer Hollywood comedies.

BERLIN – One of the truisms of the international film business is that humor never translates. Indeed, the halls of Berlin’s European Film Market are clogged with foreign comedies – see Spain’s Torrente 4: Lethal Crisis or Women in Love from German director Detlev Buck – that were local blockbuster but have little chance of traveling far beyond their own borders.

But a string of European films – led by France’s Untouchables and The Artist and raunchy Brit laffer The Inbetweeners – are challenging the stereotype that local comedy doesn’t travel.

Untouchables has earned some $217 million worldwide to date, some $56 million of that outside of France. In Germany, directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s story about the unusual, but true, odd couple tale of friendship between a paraplegic aristocrat and his black ex-con caregiver has topped the box office charts for the past five weeks, easily fending off attacks from Hollywood funny fare such as Jack and Jill and The Muppets and earning $33 million in the territory so far for distributor Senator Film.

“We bought ‘Untouchables’ off the trailer in Cannes," Senator CEO Helge Sasse told The Hollywood Reporter. "It doesn’t have a typically French sense of humor – like Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis – but is more universal. We knew it would have cross-over appeal but we could never have imagined it would be such a blockbuster.”

“We always felt this story could travel without of course,” Untouchables directors Toledano and Nakache told The Hollywood Reporter. “But even we are surprised by the audience reaction, particularly in Germany and in Austria.”

Another shock cross-border comedy success has been Brit lowbrow laffer The Inbetweeners. Ben Palmer’s feature film adaptation of a (in Britain) popular TV series about four friends looking to get drunk and laid has grossed $84 million, a good $11 million outside the U.K., where the original series is virtually unknown. Both in Germany and Italy, The Inbetweeners has earned some $1.4 million at the till.

“We bought it off the trailer in Cannes, before it had opened in the U.K.,” said Bernhard zu Castell, managing director of Universum Film, the Inbetweener’s German distributor with Square One. “All the humor doesn’t translate – German audiences don’t get all the jokes but there’s so much universal slapstick and gross-out humor that it works.”

It was a similar story with Dutch bad-taste laffers New Kids: Turbo and Nitro, also adaptations of a local-language TV series, which together have earned around $30 million, with $10 million coming from Germany and Belgium.

Slapstick or a universal story line seem to be the common denominators in the recent wave of European comedy successes. Johnny English Reborn, a James Bond spoof from British comic star Rowan Atkinson, put the focus on visual gags and pratfalls and walked away with $160 million worldwide. The Artist, of course, gets around the lost-in-translation issue altogether by having virtually no dialogue at all.

In Europe, these foreign language funny films help fill a comedy gap left by the Hollywood Studios tentpole picture focus. While the studio comedies can still pack them in – see the $254 million global gross for Warner Bros.’ The Hangover Part 2 – there aren’t enough solid U.S. comedies to meet the demand.

It’s a different story in the U.S., where foreign language comedies have traditionally had a much harder time. The Weinstein Company successfully bowed The Artist stateside – the black and white Oscar front-runner has earned an impressive $24 million domestically so far – and will try to keep its foreign funny streak going with Untouchables, which TWC will bow in the U.S. this May.

“We are really curious to see the reaction of U.S. audiences to the film,” said directors Toledano and Nakache. “The questions of diversity of integration and racial tensions are very different on both sides of the Atlantic. So how will the U.S. release do? We have no idea.”

CHART
Top 5 Euro Comedies of 2011 (Title (country): Global Take)

Untouchables (France): $217 million
Johnny English Reborn (U.K.): $160 million
The Inbetweeners Movie (U.K.): $84 million
The Artist (France): $53 million
Kokowaah (Germany): $50 million
Source: Boxoffice Mojo