The meteoric performance of “The Avengers” has been the buzz of Hollywood in recent weeks, with the superhero film zooming to more than $1 billion in worldwide receipts in just 19 days. But the real box-office shocker of the season features no comic book crusaders, aliens or computerized special effects.
In fact, it isn’t even in English.
“The Intouchables,” a French comedy about a quadriplegic, white Parisian millionaire who hires a black Senegalese troublemaker as his attendant, has taken in $339 million outside the United States since its release six months ago, according to Rentrak, an entertainment data service.
The overseas haul for “The Intouchables” is bigger than for many recent, pricey Hollywood productions including “The Hunger Games,” “Thor” and “The Adventures of Tintin.”
The French film has become the second highest-grossing non-English-language production of all time, trailing only Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which was in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew.
“The Intouchables” has already grossed nearly three times as much as France’s “The Artist,” the largely silent black-and-white film that won the best picture Oscar.
And “The Intouchables” still has further to go. The film has yet to debut in some of the globe’s biggest cinema markets, including Japan, Britain and Australia.
“It is a phenomenon,” said Timothy Richards, chief executive officer of the British cinema chain Vue Entertainment, which operates about 800 screens in England, Ireland, Portugal and Taiwan. “It is one of the films that hits the right chord at the right moment. It’s a movie that everyone can relate to. All of the issues raised in the film are real and relevant.”
In an era in which Hollywood studios routinely spend $200 million and more on effects-laden spectacles, “The Intouchables” represents a stunning return on investment. It was made for just 9 million euros (about $11.5 million at current exchange rates) and has grossed about 30 times its budget. “Avatar,” the best-performing movie of all time with global ticket sales of $2.78 billion, didn’t gross 10 times its production cost.
Christophe Riandee, vice chief executive of Gaumont, the French media company that co-financed and co-produced “The Intouchables,” said, “The movie is not a French movie — it’s universal.” He added: “For the creative community, it’s so obvious that we are a global business. Everyone is aware that this is what’s happening.”
The movie’s inspiring message, told through the blossoming friendship of two very dissimilar men, has resonated with audiences of all demographic stripes, playing in Europe’s equivalent of the heartland.
In France, where the film has grossed a record $166.1 million since premiering late last year, more than 80% of the revenue was generated outside Paris. German audiences, who are usually either indifferent or hostile to French films, have plunked down $74.1 million to see the film, and it’s performed particularly well in South Korea, Switzerland and Spain.
“It’s a question of timing. For Europe, it was a special moment of crisis,” Eric Toledano, who wrote and directed the film with Olivier Nakache, said of the movie’s release in the midst of economic emergency. “People were very depressed. There was bad news about the future and the present. And here we have a very simple story about human relationships.”
“The Intouchables,” which translates as “The Untouchables,” is based on the experiences of Champagne manufacturer Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, who was paralyzed in a 1993 hang-gliding accident, and his Algerian-born caregiver, Abdel Sellou. Their story was the subject of the documentary “A la Vie, A la Mort” and the memoir “Le Second Souffle.”
For all his money and staff, Philippe (played in the film by François Cluzet) is cut off physically and emotionally from the real world. Rather than hire a qualified but dreary assistant, Philippe is captivated by the younger Driss (Omar Sy), who not only steals a Faberge egg during his job interview but also informs Philippe that he’s applying for the job only in order to keep collecting government aid.
Driss reluctantly accepts the position but not all of its responsibilities, and they’re a badly mismatched couple: Philippe likes poetry and Vivaldi, Driss tends to scantily clad home-visiting masseuses and Earth, Wind and Fire.
But Driss slowly comes to be more companion than caregiver. While Driss learns many lessons from Philippe, it is Philippe who is transformed by Driss, who teaches his boss that his life is far from its final chapters. “Sometimes you have to reach into someone else’s world,” the movie’s ad line says, “to find what’s missing in your own.”
Toledano said he and Nakache were rebuffed at many stages in getting the movie made, with most of the resistance linked to Philippe’s being paralyzed.
“People were a little bit scared about the wheelchair — they said people don’t go to the theater to see a disability, that it’s not attractive,” Toledano said. “One of the financiers said, ‘Can he walk just a little bit?’ “
Gaumont did not hesitate, however, and, with France’s television companies Canal + and TF1, financed the production.
Reviews for the film have been mostly favorable, and Sy beat out “The Artist’s” Jean Dujardin, who won the best actor Oscar, for France’s prestigious Cesar award. But a few critics have called the film racist and trite, with Variety saying Driss recalls a “jolly house slave of yore,” while the Atlantic said the movie “examines thorny topical issues in only the most superficial, conventional way.”
For all of its success outside U.S. borders, “The Intouchables” faces significant hurdles in American multiplexes.
Although a select number of foreign-language movies have yielded good returns in American release — 2000’s martial arts spectacle “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” took in $128.1 million domestically, the best returns of any such movie — countless other acclaimed imports have failed to make an impact.
Denmark’s “In a Better World,” the winner of the foreign language Academy Award last year, barely sold $1 million in tickets, and only two dozen foreign-language movies have ever grossed more than $10 million in North American theaters.
The Weinstein Co., which is releasing “The Intouchables” domestically, has tried to pique audience interest by holding nearly 100 early screenings in some 25 top markets over the last few weeks. After opening in Los Angeles and New York, the film will expand to several more cities June 1.
“The movie is the best tool to sell itself,” said Stephen Bruno, the studio’s marketing president. “We know that the word of mouth is crucial for this film.”
The studio is hoping that the same forget-your-worries reaction that propelled the film’s overseas returns will be mirrored on this side of the Atlantic. “People are looking for something uplifting,” said Dan Guando, the Weinstein Co.’s senior vice president for acquisitions. “It works better now than it might have 20 years ago.”
But even if “The Intouchables” doesn’t storm American theaters this time around, local audiences will have another shot late next year: An English-language remake is in the works, with Colin Firth set to star.
// Moving Pixels
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