In a surprising turn of events, art will meet commerce — and comedy — going forward at France’s César Awards. The Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma today said it has created a new prize for the annual ceremony which will go to the French film with the most ticket sales in the previous year.

The Césars, France’s equivalent to the Oscars, have faced similar criticism to their American cousins, griped over for being disconnected from the moviegoing public at large. The César du Public is looking to soften that by recognizing box office success, which essentially means a mass-appeal comedy will nab the honor each year, even as comedies are rarely winners in the main races.

The move was met by raised eyebrows here today. Among execs I spoke with, there’s a school of thought that sees it as a grab to goose ratings for the ceremony which scored its lowest audience last year since 2010. Another wonders why the prize is necessary given the local trade paper already gives out awards, supported by the Culture Ministry, based on box office performance. And, there have been suggestions the prize could continue to keep comedy in the wings.

The recipient of the inaugural prize is expected to be Raid Dingue, the Dany Boon comedy that sold 4.53M tickets in 2017 (wording surrounding the prize has made it unclear whether receipts through next month will be counted, which could provide a very slim shot at another comedy squeaking by). Boon is a massive box office draw here and his elite forces comedy taking a prize on March 2 is a convenient dovetail since Boon is considered a catalyst behind the new award’s creation. It’s also timely given Boon’s latest film, La Ch’tite Famille, releases two days before the César ceremony.

SIPA
Back in 2008, his Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis sold over 20M tickets to become (and remain) the No. 1 French film ever (it was also optioned by Will Smith’s Overbrook). In 2009, it received a single César nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. At the time, Boon told RTL radio he would not attend the ceremony. While he ultimately clarified the decision was not made out of anger or because Les Ch’tis didn’t have enough nominations, he did allow that “comedies are very rarely represented at the Césars… I don’t find that normal and I don’t have a place in a soirée that boycotts comedies.” In the end, he did make an onstage appearance at the ceremony, sporting orange sweatpants.

Boon had also proposed creating a Best Comedy Film César at the time. Today, Académie President Alain Terzian said, “Five years ago we started a conversation with Dany Boon that today has its first outcome.” Hinting perhaps at a future comedy category, he pointed to how the Golden Globes split the races and told LCI of Boon, “Historically, he symbolizes the triumph of French cinema. I regularly fight against a sort of caricature that says there is cinema d’autuer and comedy cinema. No, there’s cinema and the public.”

It makes sense that France would want to celebrate what was a big year for French films with 37% of the market and more than 78M admissions to log the 3rd highest box office in 50 years. The Césars are just not the place one expects to see that happen.

That doesn’t mean comedies don’t ever win or receive nominations. Les Garçons Et Guillaume, A Table! (Me Myself And Mum) won five Césars in 2014, including Best Film, and sold 2.8M tickets. The Oscar shortlisted Intouchables, which is the No. 2 French movie of all time with 19.3M admissions, scored 10 mentions in 2012, but took only one prize. This year, its filmmakers, Eric Tolédano and Olivier Nakache, are back with wedding comedy Le Sens De La Fête, also with 10 nominations — and just over 3M tickets sold.