The global summer season may have just kicked off with Iron Man, but one big film has been warming up the French box office since its release in February. Pathe's Welcome To The Sticks (Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis) took $40.2m on its first week on release on February 27, 465% higher than Iron Man's opening week in the territory ($8m) this month.

The French comedy is the highest-grossing French film ever in France ($181.8m on nearly 20 million admissions and counting) and has helped boost the market share of local films in France to 64.4% as of May 1. Current numbers put the film up 137% on the next highest-grossing French film of all time, the 2006 comedy, Les Bronzes 3: Amis Pour La Vie ($76.7m).

The figures are all the more impressive for the nature of the film. A fish-out-of-water farce directed by actor-film-maker Dany Boon, who also stars, Welcome To The Sticks is set in the Nord-Pas du Calais region of France, a province routinely ridiculed by the rest of the country. The dialect used, Ch'timi, is not understood by many French people, and provides the source of the language-based comedy.

The language gap

So how will such a distinctively French film fare outside France' To date, it has grossed $198m from four territories. It opened in Belgium and Switzerland day-and-date with France.

Pathe UK opened Welcome To The Sticks in the UK on April 1, the first launch in a non-French-speaking territory. To date, it has grossed $140,00 (£72,000) from just five screens in London, including an exclusive run at the Cine Lumiere, where it beat the house record of $62,000 (£32,000).

Dave Woodward, sales director at Pathe UK, says the aim is to target key audiences and work on generating word of mouth rather than handling it as a "traditional" foreign film release. "We initially released it to the French community in London, presented as an exclusive arrangement with Cine Lumiere," Woodward explains.

"We did quite a broad promotion to French nationals living in the UK and French corporate banks. Now we'll be crossing the film out to the rest of the UK, keeping it very targeted and very focused and showcasing the film in key cities selectively where we can find an audience in each town."

Comedy challenge

While 2007 proved a relatively good year for French films in the UK - Icon Film Distribution's Oscar-winning Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose took $3.3m, and Revolver Entertainment's thriller Tell No One took $2.3m - comedy is always a much tougher sell outside its national borders. The relative UK success of 2001's Amelie ($6.3m) and 2004's The Chorus ($2.1m) are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Woodward admits marketing a film which sources its entire comic effect from the regional differences between the north and the south of France is a challenge.

"It's difficult because a lot of humour is in the dialect and some of that gets lost in the translation with the subtitling," he says. "But with careful handling we feel like we're getting as much out of the film as we can."

Welcome To The Sticks is set to play on single screens in key cities such as Edinburgh, Bristol and Aberdeen. The latter has a significant French community. "It's not a traditional 50-print release where we're throwing the kitchen sink at it on day one," says Woodward. "We're trying to do it a little smarter and let awareness build through word of mouth and keep feeding it to the public across key cities."

Promoting it as the most successful French film of all time is key to the film's crossover appeal. "It's something to shout about," says Woodward. Whether these shouts will be heard in other markets is yet to be seen.