France opens arms to 'Ch'tis'


PARIS -- The first half of this year was supposed to be all about "Asterix and the Olympic Games," the most expensive French movie ever, with ambitions to steamroll its way into the record books. But the $113 million comic-strip adaptation has been blown away by a comedy contender that no one had tipped for boxoffice glory.

"Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis" (Welcome to the Land of Ch'tis), a warm-hearted comedy about the folks in France's Nord region, clocked the all-time biggest opening week in the frame that ended March 4, with 4.46 million admissions across 797 prints.

Made on a budget of $16.5 million, "Ch'tis" has overtaken "Asterix's" six-week cume of 7 million ticket sales in just two weeks, racking up a staggering 8.95 million admissions through Tuesday. Pathe produced and distributed both films.

"Ch'tis" is about a postal worker who is transferred from the south of France to a village in the North, where he learns the customs and peculiar dialect of the lovable locals. The film was co-written and directed by Danny Boon, a popular comic but not previously seen as a guy to drive a movie to stellar numbers.

Henri Demoulin, head of distribution in northern France for Pathe, said the main reason for the strong boxoffice is the film's quality. "People are coming out of theaters saying they haven't laughed so much for a long time. On top of that, the film is full of good sentiments, and every French person can identify with the notion of strong regional identity," De-moulin said. Audience surveys have shown an exceptional 97% satisfaction rating, suggesting that strong word-of-mouth may give the film legs.

"It's nice for us, but it's also nice for exhibitors who haven't seen this sort of vigor in the marketplace for months," Demoulin said. It's also nice for Boon, who stands to become one of the best-paid French actors since his contract in-cludes a clause that gives him 45 cents per admission after the first 2 million tickets, on top of the reported $1.5 million fee he already received.

International prospects outside French-speaking territories look more geared to remakes rather than sales of the original. "I think that given the phenomenon the film has been in France, the movie could lend itself to local adaptations in just about any European country or elsewhere," Demoulin said.

Pathe, which also released the "Asterix" series, can look forward to breaking more records with the help of the "Ch'tis."

Some have compared Boon's on-screen rapport with co-star Kad Merad to that of "La Grande Vadrouille" stars Louis de Funes and Bourvil, which inevitably raises the question: Can "Ch'tis" better the postwar boxoffice record for a French movie set by "Vadrouille" in 1966 with 17.3 million admissions?