Euro TV a test tube for b.o. laughs, cash
EmptyCall it the "Borat" effect.
From Belgium to Berlin and Paris to Rome, European comedians are breaking the small-screen/big-screen barrier and turning television fame into boxoffice gold.
Sacha Baron Cohen and his bumbling Kazakhstan reporter -- a character Baron Cohen originally developed for his Channel 4 TV show in the U.K. -- and Rowan Atkinson's comic creation Mr. Bean are the most successful of those making the Euro TV-to-film transformation, but they are in good company across the continent.
"Mr. Bean's Holiday," the sequel to 1997 hit "Mr. Bean," topped the charts across Europe and as far away as Australia during its opening weekend and has generated an estimated $35.6 million worldwide gross. In most European territories, some of its toughest competition came from others segueing from TV to film.
In Germany, "Bean" replaced former No. 1 film "New From the Wanker," a comedy featuring local small-screen stars Oliver Kalkofe and Bastian Pastewka.
In Italy, "Ho voglia di te" (I Want You), a feature film adaptation of two hit Italian TV series that features a roster of small-screen stars, is at the top of the charts.
In Belgium, Flemish comedian Chris Van den Durpel has scored 200,000 admissions -- huge for the territory -- with "A Chicken Is No Dog," in which he plays an aging boxer, a character he developed for TV.
Spain's Fernando Tejero went from top-rated sitcom "Aqui no hay quien viva" (Who Could Live Here) to headlining sleeper hit "The Longest Penalty in the World" (2005).
France's Jean Dujardin jumped from Gallic television to film superstardom with a series of hits, including last year's James Bond spoof "OSS 117" and surfing blockbuster "Brice de Nice," and he will star in the hotly anticipated "99 francs." Countryman Jamel Debbouze went from TV comic to top billing in such hits as "Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra" and the Oscar-nominated "Days of Glory."
Then there is Britain, where police spoof "Hot Fuzz" has raked in more than $40 million in its first five weeks. While U.S. audiences might know "Hot Fuzz" star Simon Pegg from his 2004 zombie comedy "Shaun of the Dead," he built his Brit fan base, like Baron Cohen, on Channel 4, with the sitcom "Spaced."
"Simon's success goes back to his relationship with ('Hot Fuzz' director) Edgar Wright and (producer) Nira Park when they made 'Spaced,' " Working Title co-chairman Eric Fellner said. "They're a great team."
Fellner was one of the first to see the feature potential in TV talent when Working Title brought Atkinson creation Mr. Bean to the big screen a decade ago.
"Television is a great place to build a fan base, especially in Europe," said Christian Becker, the German producer of "New From the Wanker." "We don't have the superstars -- the Jim Carreys or the Steve Martins -- so the small screen is a place to build an audience and give a comedian a name before taking the big risk of a feature film."
The risk can be considerable, especially because comedy can be hard to translate, making it difficult to recoup outside the home territory. Even British comedians can find it difficult to cross the Atlantic and score with U.S. audiences.
Before Baron Cohen conquered America with "Borat," he made "Ali G in Da House." The film, based on Baron Cohen's faux rapper character Ali G, another small-screen creation, was a hit in Britain but failed to cross the channel.
Similarly, 2000's "Kevin & Perry Go Large," starring BBC favorites Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke, was a local smash but failed to compute with German, French or even U.S. audiences.
For continental comedy, the language barrier makes crossover success nearly impossible.
"Manitou's Shoe" from 2001 and 2004 release "Dreamship Surprise -- Period 1," parodies based on the sketch comedy of German TV star Michael "Bully" Herbig, have sold more than 20 million tickets in the territory. His films have sold well in mainland Europe, where they were dubbed, usually by local comedians, but in English-speaking countries, the humor got lost in the translation.
But even when no one outside the country gets the joke, laughter can be a lucrative business.
Which is why Munich's Constantin Film is pulling out all the stops for Herbig's latest TV-to-film transformation. The animated feature "Lissi and the Wild Emperor" is expected to be one of the biggest German films of the year.
The same goes for U.K. comedy "Alan Partridge: The Movie." The title character, a hapless Brit journalist played by Steve Coogan, is a household name in Britain, thanks to Coogan's hit BBC sitcoms. That's less so abroad, where Coogan is better known for his serious performances in such films as "24 Hour Party People" (2002) and "Marie Antoinette" (2006).
But industry observes said the best bet for making a big-screen comedy that can travel is to make it funny without relying on language. Which is why slapstick-heavy "Mr. Bean's Holiday" opened at No. 1 in 21 of 24 international territories last week and is on track to become one of Universal Pictures International's biggest hits of the year.
Scott Roxborough reported from Cologne, Germany. Stuart Kemp reported from London. Leo Cendrowicz in Brussels, Eric J. Lyman in Rome, Pamela Rolfe in Madrid and Rebecca Leffler and Charles Masters in Paris contributed to this report.