The Press

Film fans fail to see funny side

Jake Coyle examines why this year’s crop of comedies are failing to make a mark at the box office.


Days before the opening of the Will Ferrell-Amy Poehler comedy The House, producer Adam McKay could see the writing on the wall.

The box-office forecast for the film wasn’t looking good.

In the end, The House opened with just US$8.7 million in the US, the latest in an increasing­ly long line of comedy flops. The House may have had its problems (Warner Bros. opted to not even screen it for critics) but what stood out about the result was how typical it was.

‘‘This has just been happening a lot. If it’s not our comedies, it’s other comedies from friends of ours that just are underperfo­rming very consistent­ly,’' said McKay, whose production company with Ferrell makes a handful of comedies a year.

Unless the upcoming Girls Trip – promoted as the black, female version of The Hangover – breaks out, this summer will likely pass without a big comedy hit. Rough Night, Baywatch and Snatched have all disappoint­ed, despite the star power of Scarlett Johansson, Dwayne Johnson and Amy Schumer, respective­ly. The lone sensation has been the Kumail Nanjiani-led, Judd Apatow produced The Big Sick. But that Lionsgate-Amazon release is a specialty one; it’s made US$6.8m in three weeks of limited release.

Laughs are drying up at the multiplex, and it’s a trend that goes beyond this summer. Last year, the shockingly poor performanc­e of Andy Samberg’s Popstar (US$9.6m in its entire run) foreshadow­ed the trouble to come. There have been some successes (Bad Moms, Sausage Party, Trainwreck, Central Intelligen­ce, Spy), but it’s been a long while since a cultural sensation like The 40 Year-Old Virgin, The Hangover or Bridesmaid­s.

The downturn begs the question: Can the big-screen comedy survive the superhero era? As studios have increasing­ly focused on intellectu­al propertyba­cked franchises that play around the globe, comedies are getting squeezed. Though usually relatively inexpensiv­e propositio­ns, comedies often don’t fit the blockbuste­r agenda of riskadvers­e Hollywood.

‘‘They really want these movies to work in China and Russia, and comedies don’t always work like that,’' says Apatow.

In interviews with many top names in comedy, as well as numerous studio executives, many in Hollywood expressed optimism that a turnaround could and will be sparked by something fresh and exciting – a Get Out for comedy. But they also described an unmistakab­le sense that the era of Superbad, Pineapple Express and Step Brothers may be closing – and that an increasing­ly restrictiv­e Hollywood landscape is partly to blame.

‘‘It does worry me because it feels like the studios aren’t developing as many comedy scripts,’' adds Apatow.

The comedies that have managed to get made have often recycled many of the familiar, previously profitable formulas. McKay has watched marketing department­s increasing­ly dictate which comedies get greenlit.

‘‘That’s their whole thing: `What’s the formula so we can go to the boardroom?’'’ says McKay. ‘‘All of a sudden, I start noticing that people keep asking for comedies to look like other comedies. And we keep saying, `Yeah, but comedies have to be original’.’'

But ‘‘original’' can be a scary word in today’s Hollywood. Thus the Ghostbuste­rs reboot, thus Baywatch. At the same time, other formats – Old School-like party movies, for example – have grown a little stale from overuse.

‘‘What I think you’re seeing in the last three years is just fatigue with those structures,’' McKay says. ‘‘They did the worst thing that a comedy can ever do, which is start to feel familiar. I really think this isn’t permanent. It’s going to break out but what it’s going to require is three or four accidents to happen again, like Austin Powers and Anchorman.‘’

Both of those films also depended on a long afterlife on home video; comedies historical­ly have been especially strong sellers after theatrical release. ‘‘You can’t really do that now,’' says producer Michael De Luca, who championed Austin Powers at New Line and produced comedies like Rush Hour and The Love Guru. ‘‘You have to be a theatrical event when you open.’'

De Luca recalled the thunderbol­t experience of reading the spec script for American Pie, which heralded the explosion of R-rated comedy.

‘‘I do feel like these things are cyclical,’' says De Luca. ‘‘Each generation discovers their punkrock comedy. It may not have happened yet for the generation that’s coming up behind Seth Rogen, who was behind Judd Apatow.’'

But the next generation might gravitate to HBO or FX or Netflix instead. That’s where you’ll find many of today’s most exciting comic voices, like Donald Glover (Atlanta), Lena Dunham (Girls) and Issa Rae (Insecure).

The path to a nationwide or global movie release is more difficult and may offer less creative freedom, unless you have in your corner a big-name producer like James L. Brooks, who shepherded Kelly Fremon Craig’s terrific debut The Edge of Seventeen to the screen late last year. A large percentage of recent comedies have starred either Kevin Hart, Seth Rogen, Melissa McCarthy or Ferrell – who are, granted, some of the funniest people alive.

‘‘You see a lot of the big Hollywood comedies have the same people playing the same type of people in the same sort of high stakes but not too high stakes situations,’' says Nanjiani, who also stars on HBO’s Silicon Valley. ‘‘The fact that there’s only a handful of people that are deemed worthy of being big comedy leads, it means that you can’t really have that much variance in the types of movies that get made.’'

But even the top stars are having a more difficult time. Ahead of the release of Sony’s Sausage Party, Rogen acknowledg­ed he’s seen first-hand that comedies are getting harder and harder to make.

``The truth is, you’re now probably better off selling it to Netflix or something. Which is a bummer,’' said Rogen. ``You look at a lot of comedies and it’s just like: Five years ago that would have made US$120 million and now, unless there’s big action, huge helicopter­s and tanks and car chases, just people talking and being funny is a lot harder to do.’'

Sausage Party was a gleefully raunchy animated comedy about grocery store food that most studios would have immediatel­y turned down. It went on to make US$98m in the US alone on a US$20m budget, packing theatres with cackling audiences.

It was a good reminder that even at a time when many doubt the future of the theatrical experience, nothing beats a good comedy. – AP

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 ??  ?? The House is among the many Hollywood comedies to disappoint at the box office this year.
The House is among the many Hollywood comedies to disappoint at the box office this year.
 ??  ?? Looking for safe bets, Hollywood has chosen to head towards known franchises like Baywatch when it comes to comedic material in the last few years.
Looking for safe bets, Hollywood has chosen to head towards known franchises like Baywatch when it comes to comedic material in the last few years.

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