Why the world loves those penguins

15th August 2005, Comments 0 comments

'March of the Penguins,' a French film about penguins' struggle for survival in Antarctica, has become the second highest-grossing documentary of all time. By Tangi Quemener and Marie-Therese Delboulbes

Okay, they're cute. Is that what it's all about?

It was a very simple idea: former ornithologist and French director Luc Jacquet, in the company of two cinematographers, spent 13 months filming Emperor penguins in the Antarctic, often in temperatures well below freezing.

Now, more than 1.8m people have seen the film since its release in France on January 26.

Made for a modest EUR 2.8m (US $3.4m), in the United States alone, its box-office take has made it more profitable than many of this year's Hollywood blockbusters.

And its popularity is soon to be a worldwide phenomenon.

In an unprecedented feat for a foreign animal film, work has grossed US $26.5m since its North American release on June 24. 'Penguins' earned US $7.1m in the first weekend in August, 77 percent more than the previous weekend, according to Exhibitor Relations, which tracks movie ticket sales in the United States and Canada.

The film opened nationwide in China Saturday and its triumph there looks equally assured.

The stars on set.

"This is so much more than we ever hoped for," one of the three producers of the documentary, Yves Darondeau, told AFP. "The film has been sold everywhere in the world. In Japan, it's already in fifth place in its first week in the cinemas."

Its march is far from over. In September, the film opens in the Netherlands, followed by Germany, Italy, Brazil, Australia, and other countries. In France, the DVD of the documentary is already the top-selling title after coming out two weeks ago.

Chinese actors also have completed their voice-over translation and 120 copies are to be distributed by Tang media. Interest is already high following the film's Chinese premiere August 5.

A long shot

No one was sure at first if the film would fly outside France. After all, it's a documentary about penguins.

But Jacquet now seems poised to become the most popular French documentary film-maker since Jacques Cousteau and, in terms of North American ticket sales, is already just behind Michael Moore, the most popular American documentary film-maker of all time.

The movie was first released in just four theatres in North America, two in New York and two in Los Angeles, but is now playing on 1,867 screens across the United States and is in sixth place at the box office.

*quote1*In its first three days it earned US $34,000 per theatre, five times more than the top-selling movie at the time, 'Batman Begins'. It has now flapped its way to number six on the US movie charts, four places above 'The Island', a US $122m action flick that has made roughly the same as 'Penguins' in ticket sales.

More than Batman? Not too shabby for flightless birds.

"We'll be over 2,000 screens this weekend," said Laura Kim, vice president of distributor Warner Independent Pictures (WIP).

'Penguins' is soaring even as Hollywood endures its worst box office slump in 20 years.

"Every week, the penguins surprise us," Kim told AFP, attributing its success to its appeal across age groups -- and species.

"There are very few films that parents can bring their children to, and both parents and children love it," she said. "It's played for people from five to 80. It's a romantic film but kids love it, too. The things that penguins go through are very relatable to human experience. It's not just a documentary about penguins. It's a story about survival."

It's all about L-O-V-E

Former ornithologist and director Luc Jacquet. Is he the next Cousteau?

"The film has been so successful because it works on so many different levels. It's a beautiful love story for couples, a thrilling family adventure and a testament to the power and beauty of nature for the more mature audiences," said WIP president Mark Gill.

In ticket sales, 'Penguins' has overtaken 'Bowling for Columbine', Michael Moore's meditation on school violence (US $21.5m). But it is still far behind 'Fahrenheit 9/11', Moore's virulently anti-Bush flick that swept the United States during the 2004 presidential election campaign, raking in more than US $120m dollars.

WIP and National Geographic Feature Films purchased rights to 'March of the Penguins' at the Sundance Festival in Utah in January for US $1m, then modified it slightly for American tastes, changing the soundtrack and narration.

*quote2*In the original version, French actors Charles Berling and Romane Bohringer voiced the penguin couple, adding an entire anthropomorphic story-line that French viewers find dramatically satisfying.  In all the other countries where it's being release so far, except North America, the voice-over of each member of the penguin family was dubbed or sub-titled.

But, fearing that Americans wouldn't appreciate the passions of talking penguins, the distributors changed the English-language version using a more standard 'National Geographic'-style script and hiring actor Morgan Freeman to narrate.

It's educational too

A family that marches together, stays together.

The stars of the documentary are emperor penguins, of which an estimated 350,000 live in Antarctica. They are unique among penguins for being the only ones to breed during the long, dark winter, and their family lives make for fascinating viewing.

After a long gestation period, the female passes the egg over to the male for incubation. During those nine weeks, the male eats nothing but huddles with other males for warmth waiting for the chick to hatch -- and for the female to return.

Jacquet and his crew filmed the penguins up close, actually standing among them as they went about their lives, as a shot in the closing credits shows. Temperatures dropped as low as minus 30C (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit) and blizzards were frequent.

"We fought to have this film made," said Darondeau. "It was difficult to produce, difficult to direct. It was a film of passion, made in extreme conditions."

The key to its success is the universal nature of its story, he said. "It has all the good ingredients: the struggle for life, to give birth. It's a story that appeals to all of us, humans, whether we're Japanese, Chinese, British or French. Nature has come up with the most beautiful of all the stories."

In business terms, Darondeau said the Hollywood studios have left a niche open for small-budget, independent film-makers like Jacquet. "They are incapable of sensing (the opportunity), anticipating, which leaves the place to small outfits like us," he said

Next up for Jacquet

Jacquet and Darondeau's Bonne Pioche production company are now developing their next feature 'Le Renard et l'Enfant' ('The Fox and the Child'), which will tell the tale of a little girl encountering a fox in a forest and her efforts to tame the animal.

"It's a story that deals with the meeting of strangers, and it will be both a nature-based story and a fairy-tale," Darondeau said, adding that they would only be using real foxes -- "not animated foxes, 3D foxes, or any sort of fake creature."

August 2005

Copyright AFP with Expatica France

Subject: French news, March of the Emperor,
box office, film, cinema, Luc Jacquet

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