Overseas hits cross borders

European films take page out of Hollywood playbook

Senior citizens having sex, a rock star deciding to kill himself, a clueless Italian bungling his way through a Christmas vacation -- these are the plot lines of top local hits in key European territories.

Although such American films and franchises as "Transformers," "Ice Age" and "Mamma Mia!" can be counted on to bring in big bucks abroad, local fare can surprise on the upside, even occasionally besting U.S. competition at the boxoffice.

France's outsized comedy "Welcome to the Sticks," for example, managed to lure more Gallic moviegoers than even Johnny Depp in his latest "Pirates of the Caribbean" saga. A Scandinavian crime print trilogy, "Millennium," has unleashed a multiplatform campaign that will see it exploited across theatrical, books, film, DVD, TV and merchandising.

Below is a rundown of recent local favorites and how they increasingly are making moolah by crossing national borders, licensing remake rights or optimizing their franchise potential.

-- Elizabeth Guider



U.K.

 
Anton Corbijn's "Control" is about as unlikely a hit as they come. A black-and-white biopic by a photographer- turned-director, it focuses on the rock band Joy Division, whose lead singer, Ian Curtis, hanged himself just as its music was reaching a mass audience.

The best-known name attached to star at the script stage was Samantha Morton, a cult actress known for challenging roles. She played the wife touched by suicide opposite newcomer Sam Riley, and Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara played Curtis' lover.

The $4.5 million-budgeted biopic was presold in the U.K. to Alliance Films-owned British distributor Momentum. Producers Corbijn, Orian Willliams and Todd Eckert turned down cash support from the U.K. Film Council because they didn't want interference from financiers.

The movie rocked its way to a $2.4 million gross -- a U.K.-financed picture is deemed a success if it passes $1 million -- after 21 weeks in theatrical release in the U.K. and has sold a whopping 215,600 units on DVD, coining $1.6 million.

The film also found itself at the center of a bidding war between the BBC and Channel 4 for terrestrial rights after BSkyB secured pay rights before cameras rolled. Channel 4 eventually paid a healthy $500,000.

The film enjoyed marginally successful theatrical rollouts in Germany ($1.2 million) and Australia ($472,000) and took in nearly $1 million in the U.S.

-- Stuart Kemp



Germany

 
A low-budget, no-star drama featuring explicit sex among senior citizens is no one's idea of a surefire hit. But critical raves and a clever marketing campaign aimed at geezers turned Andreas Dresen's "Cloud 9" into a certified sleeper.

The Rommel Films production is a classic love triangle: Inge, married to Werner, falls head over heels for Karl and starts a passionate affair that ends in tears. The twist is that Inge is in her mid-60s, Karl is 76 and the sex scenes are unashamedly bare-all.

The film grossed $4 million in its home territory for Senator, a financial success that has helped change distributors' approach to the graybeard demographic. Home entertainment group Universum took a similarly seniors-friendly approach to the film's DVD release, helping the title to $370,000 in German sales. Success at the Festival de Cannes -- where "Cloud 9" won Un Certain Regard's Jury Coup de Coeur -- and later at Toronto made the title an international sales hit for the Match Factory, which closed 30 territories worldwide, including Music Box in the U.S.

Although Dresen's take on senior sex didn't sell as well to audiences outside Germany, the film grossed $500,000 in the rest of Europe. One of the best performances was in Spain, where Warner Bros. grossed $160,000.

-- Scott Roxborough



France

 
Dany Boon's fish-out-of-water comedy "Welcome to the Sticks" broke French boxoffice records last year, selling more than 20 million tickets in the territory to gross $200 million. "Sticks" easily was 2008's most profitable releas in France; it was made on a modest $14.5 million budget. Boon pocketed $34 million last year, arguably the highest salary to date for an actor in Europe.

The film successfully managed to export its very French humor abroad via Pathe, selling 4 million tickets in foreign markets (grossing $39 million) and getting set for remakes worldwide, including local versions in Italy and Germany. Warner Bros. picked up film rights for a U.S. remake, with Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment set to produce.

DVD distributor Fox-Pathe-Europa sold more than 1 million copies during the film's first two days on shelves, and "Sticks" was France's most popular DVD in 2008, selling more than 2.8 million units.

-- Rebecca Leffler



Italy

 
The cinepanettone genre of films takes its name from a traditional Italian Christmas pastry. About two dozen of these frothy movie concoctions have been made dating back to the 1980s, starting with the "Vacanze di Natale" (Christmas Vacation) series.

For a while, they were all called "Vacanze di Natale": "Vacanze di Natale '90," "Vacanze di Natale '91" and so on, but soon they began to take on the name of a specific location including "Natale a Rio" from last year and "Natale in crociera" (Christmas on a Cruise) in 2007.

This year will see "Natale a Beverly Hills." They all star Christian de Sica, son of iconic Italian director Vittorio de Sica, as a bumbling traveler in unfamiliar territory, surrounded by an unlikely group of vacationers that invariably includes a buxom actress whom de Sica attempts to woo.

The films might be silly and the plots predictable, but the titles always finish among the year's top grossers.

The previous four productions grossed about $30 million apiece and finished the August-to-July year (calculated that way because the films are released around Christmas, so receipts are split into two calendar years) as the top- or second-best grossing film.

The all-time top-grossing cinepanettone pic was "Natale sul Nilo" (Christmas on the Nile), which raked in $40 million in 2002-03.

Most of these films are produced by Rome-based Filmauro and have become an economic centerpiece for the company, which is run by the storied de Laurentiis family. They aren't released on any scale outside Italy, but they make the rounds on TV leading up to Christmas each year and are a staple on pubcaster RAI.

On DVD, the cinepanettoni aren't top sellers, mostly because of the seasonality of the plots. There have been no remake-rights sales by Filmauro because the films basically are remakes of one another, with a change of scenery each time out.

-- Eric J. Lyman



Spain

 
Juan Antonio Bayona's 2007 ghost tale "The Orphanage" was the first homegrown production to top the Spanish boxoffice in years thanks to securing one of Spain's most popular TV actresses in the lead and backing from Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who godfathered the project.

The film originated at Barcelona-based producer Rodar y Rodar, headed by Joaquin Padro and Mar Targarona, who started in advertising. The chilling tale centers on Laura, played by Belen Rueda, who returns to the orphanage where she grew up with her husband and adopted son to reopen it as a home for disabled children. Her son tells her just before he goes missing that he has started playing with the same imaginary friend that terrorized her childhood . The €4.5 million Spanish-language project was Spain's top-grossing film in 2007 with €24.3 million, topping Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," which took in €22.7 million.

Telecinco's participation not only gave the project deeper pockets and a TV window but also a promotional infrastructure with blanket coverage and aggressive ad campaigns. Distributor Warner Bros. also invested €3 million in promoting the film locally.

Wild Bunch presold the film to 10 countries, and it has grossed $77 million worldwide, with more than $7 million of that coming from the U.S. New Line bought American remake rights, with del Toro attached to produce and actor-producer-director Larry Fessenden aboard to helm.

-- Pamela Rolfe



Scandinavia

 
"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" proved the biggest Scandinavian film of all time, not only for producer Yellow Bird but also for the territory.

When Yellow Bird bought rights to Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" crime trilogy ("Tattoo" is the first novel in the trilogy) -- before it was published, before it became a worldwide sensation and before the battle between the late author's partner and his estranged family over royalties added scandal to the mix -- its success was far from assured.

But by the time "Tattoo" was made by director Niels Arden Oplev, Yellow Bird knew it had a hit. The thriller centers on idealist investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and anti-social computer hacker Lisbeth Salander as they attempt to find the truth behind the mysterious disappearance, about 40 years earlier, of a 16-year-old girl. Their investigation leads to the highest levels of Stockholm's political and business elite.

The ripped-from-the-headlines feel to the story, coupled with a breakout performance by newcomer Noomi Rapace, has grossed $85 million throughout Europe, with more than 6 million tickets sold. It will clear $100 million after releases in Germany, the U.K. and Japan this year.

Of the major territories, the U.S. remains the sole holdout.

The DVD release of "Tattoo," set to hit shelves in Scandinavia at month's end, is expected to top the charts. The second film in the trilogy, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," was released Sept. 18 in Scandinavia (the third film, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," will be released Nov. 27).

Yellow Bird simultaneously produced the "Millennium" trilogy as a series of three feature films and six 90-minute TV movies, which will hit small screens throughout Europe next year, followed by a DVD bow.

After their individual DVD release, the trilogy will come out as a boxed set, which in turn will be used in territories to promote the series' TV bow, which itself be repackaged for retail release. Yellow Bird said the massive success of "Tattoo" has sparked interest in an English-language remake, but so far no deal has been signed.

-- Scott Roxborough
comments powered by Disqus