Opening up critically acclaimed horror movies at the box office? That’s easy.
But as far as comedies go, that’s hard.
This weekend Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler hit career box office lows as New Line/Village Roadshow/Warner Bros’ $40M-budgeted The House burned down with a $8.7M opening (figures as of Monday morning). For Ferrell, House reps his lowest live-action comedy opening from a major studio, while for Poehler, it’s certainly her lowest three-day for any major studio release that has featured her as a marquee draw.
It’s the fourth time this summer a comedy hasn’t worked at the domestic B.O. after 20th Century Fox’s Goldie Hawn-Amy Schumer title Snatched (no Trainwreck at $45.6M domestic), Paramount’s Baywatch ($57.2M) and Sony’s Rough Night ($19M) and arguably the seventh time a comedy hasn’t worked to date this following New Line’s Fist Fight and Warner Bros.’ CHIPS.
It’s been close to a year since any comedy has clicked past $100M at the B.O.; the last live-action title to hit that mark was STX Entertainment’s Bad Moms, which minted a $50M-plus profit off a $20M production cost and near $184M global tally. Last summer also touted Warner Bros./New Line/Universal’s Central Intelligence and Sony’s Ghostbusters among those titles cracking past $100m stateside. In addition, Sony/Annapurna’s R-rated animated toon Sausage Party ($140.7M global off a $19M production cost) was a cash cow.
While a pragmatic business prognostication might be that feature comedies are better suited for Netflix than the multiplex (case in point, former summer B.O. king Adam Sandler, who recently saw his film deal re-upped at the streaming service and hasn’t had a live-action comedy since his 2015 VFX disaster Pixels), many distribution executives in town truly believe that comedies are just going through a rough patch at the B.O. This occurs from time to time with the genre, and it just takes something new and fresh to jump-start the big-screen laughs again.
The House’s failure comes as a shock. Exhibitors were in stitches over the clips Warner Bros. showed off at CinemaCon. Pairing the right stars is so vital when it comes to the genre, i.e. a Farrell/Mark Wahlberg combo has proven to sell more tickets with The Other Guys and Daddy’s Home than, say, Dax Shepard and Michael Pena in a reboot of antiquated 1970s series Chips ($18.6M domestic). This makes The House’s misfortune all the more a head-scratcher. Saturday Night Live alums Ferrell and Poehler? Who wouldn’t want to watch that kind of crazy? Previously the two starred in 2007 ice skating comedy Blades of Glory ($33M opening, $118.6M) and saw better results.
The real problem is the flooding of the marketplace with Bacchanalian comedies, and The House is opening two weekends after Sony’s raunchy female comedy bomb, Rough Night. Party-hardy comedies been tapped way too many times by the majors following the success of Todd Phillips’ The Hangover trilogy and Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg’s produced This Is The End ($126M global) and Neighbors ($270.7M global). Audiences can smell these types of films from several miles away and are sending a clear message with their wallets that they’re flat-out rejecting them as marquee choices. In the wake of Neighbors, screenwriters Brendan O’Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen were a hot commodity, with New Line snapping up The House at auction (Cohen also directed the movie). However, their raunchy humor has yielded depreciating results at the B.O., falling from Neighbors to Neighbors 2 ($21.8M, $55.4M), last summer’s Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates ($16.6M, $46M domestic, $77M global) and now The House.
But wait a second — what about STX’s Bad Moms? Wasn’t that also an R-rated raunchy, party movie? Many say that the key to that film’s success stems from being a relatable comedy for the underserved older female crowd. Aside from serving as wish-fulfillment escapism for women over 25, the pic touched on key domestic issues — work, marriage and raising kids —that mothers balance.
And therein lies the trick to succeeding with a comedy in the current marketplace: Create stories that moviegoers can relate to.
“There’s such a high bar for comedies on the big screen, and to make them work theatrically boils down to the idea. The comedies that work are largely relateable and that credit goes to Judd Apatow for making that happen. It’s not about blaming Will Ferrell in The House, but the idea. The whole concept of a guy and wife turning their house into a casino, and a bunch of girls going crazy and killing a stripper in Rough Night, these are Netflix movies and farcical jammed up ideas from the 1990s. Comedy has moved on,” asserts one studio chief.
Also, post Bad Moms and Sausage Party, it hasn’t just been raunchy comedies biting the dust. Other zany set-ups have failed to resonate with moviegoers recently including Fox’s spies-hiding-in-suburbia title Keeping Up with the Joneses as well as New Line’s teacher playground battle pic Fist Fight.
And, yes, Rotten Tomatoes is once again partly to blame for comedies going down the drain at the B.O. The genre, from raunchy to dumb to satire, has been historically critic proof, but in the social media era where aggregate RT ratings are swapped around, that’s not the case.
When we asked Ben Stiller at the Cannes Film Festival about the whole downturn in the funny business on the big screen, he acknowledged that “the movies and the general landscape have changed” from the days when he churned out comedies during the 1990s and early aughts. A movie such as his 2008 summer directorial Tropic Thunder ($188M global B.O., $92M) would be difficult to get off the ground in today’s climate, given the film’s budget.
“[The studios are] making less of everything that’s not making them money,” Stiller said at a luncheon for the latest Netflix title he’s starring in, The Meyerowitz Stories.
In addition to Bad Moms working last summer, there also was Central Intelligence ($50M production cost, $35.5M opening, $127.4M domestic, $217M global and $52M profit), starring Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson. However, because it’s an action comedy, analysts say that subgenre has a better chance of clicking with audiences — not just with the right star pairing but also because the subgenre appeals to a broad demographic and plays strongly among Hispanic and African-American audiences. Ghostbusters opened to $46M and finaled at $128.4M stateside, but that film was a feathered fish and hardly a success. At $144M before P&A, the movie was overpriced, lacked overseas appeal and was plagued by the controversy of its gender role reversal in rebooting a classic comedy.
That said, comedy isn’t dead. Major studio releases on the horizon include Universal’s female African-American comedy Girls Trip on July 21, Lionsgate’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard with Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween (October 20), STX’s A Bad Moms Christmas (November 3), Paramount’s Daddy’s Home 2 and Warner Bros.’s Ed Helms-Owen Wilson comedy Bastards. That movie finished shooting back in December and is hoping to reap a holiday multiple as alternative programming on December 22. WB moved the pic around the 2016-17 calendar a few times. Also next year, there’s New Line’s Game Night with Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, as well as NL’s Melissa McCarthy feature Life of the Party on May 11 and Sony’s Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s Holmes and Watson on August 3 to name a few.
But more than anything with comedy, it all comes down to timing. And studio executives believe that what Americans find funny now in the Trump era is quite different from what was hysterical during the Obama days.
Observes one distribution sage, “Ya know, by the time these movies are greenlit two years out, a lot can change in regards to the nation’s sense of humor by the time of release. And you can definitely say that plenty has changed in America in recent months.”