Crossing borders a tough sell

"Titanic" is about to be sunk again

CANNES -- "Titanic" is about to be sunk again -- this time by a Frenchman.

Dany Boon's soft-hearted comedy "Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis" (Welcome to the Sticks) is poised to overtake the all-time French boxoffice record of 20.7 million admissions held by James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster. Pathe is flying the cast of "Ch'tis" down to Cannes for a triumphant red-carpet run next week.

The phenomenal success underlines the power local talent can have on home turf, but also points up a paradox. Despite the occasional efforts of international film fests to give local faves more exposure, it is rare that they are turned into true international phenoms.

"Boon's a purely French phenomenon," said Pathe chief Jerome Seydoux, who added that talks are underway for a U.S. remake of the surprise hit. "Boon himself is very funny in French, but he can't act in English and if there is an adaptation to be done, he wouldn't dosaiydoux continued.

But it's not just French, or even European stars that face this "big fish, small pond" quandary. Across the globe, local superstars you've never heard of rule the roost. Only a handful -- think South Korean pop phenom Rain ("Speed Racer") or Spanish stars Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas -- ever cross the border.

Comedy -- perhaps the most untranslatable genre -- is a common thread linking these local heroes. In Germany, the movie spoofs written, directed and starring funnyman Michael "Bully" Herbig are boxoffice gold -- the first three having sold more than 20 million tickets. In Spain, Santiago Segura has set sales records with his two "Torrente" films, which feature a politically incorrect Spanish cop. The musical-action-romantic comedy extravaganzas starring Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan -- once described as the local boxoffice equivalent of Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis -- are guaranteed blockbusters in India. But none have emulated their stellar home numbers overseas.

This year's Cannes lineup also includes a few local megastars that draw nothing but blank looks abroad. Wim Wenders' In Competition title "The Palermo Shooting" stars Campino -- a stadium-packing punk rock star back in Germany who could stroll the Croisette unmolested. And Kim Jee-woon's "The Good, The Bad, The Weird" features Lee Byung-hun, arguably the hottest Korean actor of the moment.

While films from these local giants are unlikely to find a large international audience, the stars' regional boxoffice draw makes them attractive to Hollywood studios looking to deliver a truly global audience.

Lee Byung-hun already has been discovered by the Hollywood heavyweights, with a role in the new "G.I. Joe" film and Anh Hung Tran's Josh Hartnett starrer "I Come With the Rain." Asian boxoffice giant Chow Yun Fat was the name that helped pump up the Asian tally for "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End."

"Chow's involvement in 'At World's End' was an absolutely positive influence to the boxoffice results of the film," said Terry Yung of Hong Kong distributor Intercontinental. "A local star acting in a Hollywood production brings great publicity value. Not only are the local press more eager to write about the film, but audiences that usually stay away from Hollywood or foreign films are drawn to the film as well."

But for every Chow Yun Fat, Rain or Cruz, there is an army of Boons, Herbigs, Seguras and Khans that seemed destined to remain in their small, albeit well-gilded cages.

"Bully Herbig got a role in the latest Asterix film ('Asterix at the Olympic Games') but he played a mute because he's only funny in German," one Teutonic production exec said. "But what does he really care? He makes millions staying at home."

Pamela Rolfe, Karen Chu in Hong Kong, Mark Russell in Seoul and Nyay Bhushan in New Delhi contributed to this report.
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