The Anti-'King's Speech': When British Hits Don't Translate to U.S. Audiences

The Inbetweeners Movie was No. 3 at the U.K. box office last year but is only now finding its way here—and faces, like most comedies from England, a tough sell in America.

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The British invasion just never ends. It's gotten to the point where American actors can barely even get parts on television shows that are firmly entrenched in U.S. locations or culture: Brits played Baltimore cops and crooks on The Wire, and it seems as if half the vampires in Bon Temps speak the Queen's English off camera. Meanwhile, Batman is Welsh, and when I tell you that the new Superman is from Jersey, I'm not speaking of the same one that gave us Snooki.

Beyond British actors playing Americans, the U.S. is also gobbling up plenty of overtly British culture, particularly in the crossover popularity of BBC series like Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Downton Abbey. One of the most popular TV shows of the past decade, The Office, was nicked from the U.K, and we continue to exhibit an odd fascination with the royal family, given that they shouldn't mean anything to us at all.

As it's not fantasy, science fiction, or costume drama, the film's probably doomed on this side of the Atlantic.

But for all our various obsessions with British culture, there are still high-profile British properties that don't travel so well. In 2011, the three films that topped the United Kingdom box office were fundamentally or thematically British productions. No. 1 was the final installment of Harry Potter, which also ruled the U.S. chart. Next on the list was The King's Speech, which was released in 2010 in the U.S. for Oscar qualification; while not quite as popular here as there, it still made well over $100 million in the U.S. and was in the year's top 20, which isn't bad for a period drama about a stuttering monarch. But at the U.K.'s No. 3, after those familiar titles, there's The Inbetweeners Movie.

Most American moviegoers won't recognize that name, even though the film raked in more pounds last year than Pirates of the Caribbean 4, The Hangover 2, Twilight 3, and Transformers 3. It nearly made as much in England as Bridesmaids and the second Sherlock Holmes combined, and Sherlock's a British hero. (Though, taking the sting slightly out of the outsourcing of Batman and Superman, an American actor—Robert Downey, Jr.—did manage to steal that role away from any natives).

The film is an extension of a British television series about a group of four high-school boys and their constant quest for sex and booze. The series did air on BBC America starting in 2010, which is probably the only reason the film managed to get a U.S. release at all, as a small band of vocal fans campaigned for it to screen here. Otherwise one of the biggest cultural phenomena in recent British memory might not have even made it here—save for in the inevitable American remake of the TV program, which, much like another UK teen show, Skins, MTV picked up for adaptation.

The Inbetweeners Movie hits select U.S. cinemas this weekend, and while it remains to be seen how well it does, given little marketing push and the unfamiliarity of most Americans with the series, it's not likely to go far. It would hardly be the only wildly popular British product that couldn't quite gain traction here, though. This year, Pirates!, the latest from Aardman Animation—the studio best known for the Wallace and Gromit characters, who have managed some success here—is a top-20 film there and far down the list here. Last year Aardman had another hit in the U.K., Arthur Christmas, that faltered in the U.S.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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