Wednesday, July 22, 2020

In Laman's Terms: What Happened To The Big Screen Comedy At The Box Office? (PART ONE)

An image from Superbad, a hit comedy from 2007.

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

This past May, Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson starred in a widely-publicized comedy entitled The Hustle. Opening in 2,750 locations, it managed to gross just $35.4 million domestically. Just one week prior, the Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron comedy Long Shot grossed just $30.3 million. Save for Good Boys, these two were the highest-grossing comedies of summer 2019. The final domestic hauls for these star-studded comedies released at the start of May were remarkably similar to the $32.3 million domestic gross of Balls of Fury, a comedy dumped into theaters over Labor Day weekend 2007.

Balls of Fury used to be the basement box office level for big-screen comedies. Now, even popular movie stars struggle to get comedies to outgross the likes of Balls of Fury. The box office disparity isn't just around when comparing releases from 2007 to 2019. Comparing the box office hauls of summer 2013 comedies and summer 2019 comedies, it also becomes apparent. Summer 2013 saw five different comedies crack $100 million at the domestic box office, with three of them (Grown Ups 2, The Heat and We're the Millers) managing to snag grosses over $130 million.

Meanwhile, not a single comedy last summer cracked $100 million. Ditto for the summer of 2018. The last summertime comedy to gross over $100 million was Girls' Trip. The picture doesn't get much better when expanding the comparison to yearly grosses. Seven comedies cracked $100 million in 2013. Only one (The Upside) achieved the same accomplishment in 2019. Before the pandemic happened, theatrical comedies were already off to a bad start at the domestic box office thanks to flops Like a Boss and Downhill.

So, what's exactly going on here? Why have big-screen comedies struggled so much lately? What's happening? Well, over the course of two In Laman's Terms columns (one this week, one next week), we'll look at the various factors that have led to comedies struggling on the big screen. First up, though, let's give credit where credit is due, because comedies are not inherently doomed at the box office.

Comedies Can Still Make Money

An image from Good Boys, last years' second-biggest comedy
 Though nowhere near as omnipresent as they were a few years ago, comedies actually can still make a pretty penny at the box office. Just last year, Good Boys topped the domestic box office and cleared $83 million, more than four times its $20 million budget. The Upside also managed to exceed $100 million last year while 2017 saw a trio of comedies (Girls' Trip, Pitch Perfect 3, and Daddy's Home 2) crossing $100 million domestically. 

The fact that we have recent examples of this genre making money indicates, to me, that the problem isn't as simple as moviegoers being repelled by the very sight of a comedy playing at their local Cinemark. It's a more complex issue than that, with the problems emanating from a number of areas. Chief among those factors is how the film studio landscape has changed over the last two decades.

A Changing Film Landscape

The Master of Disguise is an example of a film that is no longer turtle-y enough for major movie studios.

Comedies were never a foolproof genre. For every box office juggernaut like Bruce Almighty, there was a flop like Master of Disguise. It just came with the territory.

Of course, that was then, this is now. The American film industry has radically shifted in the last two decades, particularly in how movie studios approach big-screen comedies.

A number of studios that used to make comedies their bread-and-butter either no longer exist or have drastically shifted course. Touchstone Pictures, New Line Cinema, and Columbia Pictures used to be the go-to homes for big-screen comedies. Columbia especially was the place where comedies thrived. Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell and Cameron Diaz all made Columbia a go-to home for their comedic vehicles.

Now, in 2020, those studios are either out of the comedy game or out of the filmmaking game entirely. Touchstone is defunct. Despite still producing comedy hits like Wild Hogs and The Proposal in its last few years of existence, Disney decided to put the label into hibernation. Save for distributing DreamWorks SKG titles from 2011 to 2016 and two animated film releases (Gnomeo & Juliet and Strange Magic), Touchstone has been dead since 2010. 

New Line Cinema, meanwhile, was turned into a Warner Bros. Pictures label in April 2008. Now it produces only four or five movies a year, most of them horror movies. Meanwhile, Columbia, save for the occasional Holmes & Watson or Sausage Party, is mostly out of the comedy business. In 2015, a new regime took over Columbia Pictures in the wake of the Sony Pictures hack. Columbia then began to rejigger its focus away from mid-budget comedies and onto big-budget blockbusters. Columbia and sister companies Screen Gems and TriStar still produce movies that aren't Marvel films, of course, but comedies are scarce on their slates.

These studios are no longer in the comedy game and nobody's really risen up to try and fill that void save for STX Films. Among the major American studios, only Universal regularly produces comedies anymore. The mid-budget comedy just doesn't fit with modern American movie studio priorities that tend to favor low-budget fare or blockbusters. This absence of mid-budget theatrical comedies has caused some awkward scenarios when low-budget comedies are used to fill that void. Titles like Booksmart that would have worked much better with a gradual limited release rollout are suddenly expected to work like gangbusters in over 2,500 theaters. That's the kind of theatrical debut for a big-budget studio comedy, not an indie film.

Compounding the lack of studio comedies is that many comedy movie stars are ditching the traditional film studios for streaming services. Warner Bros., for example, may have hesitations about spending $60 million on a new Adam Sandler movie but Netflix sure doesn't. 

The 2020 American movie studio system doesn't have much room for comedies, though, to be fair, they haven't abandoned the genre. Intriguingly, Paramount Pictures has actually bought up a number of pitches for comedies (including the Gina Rodriguez comedy The Aliens Are Stealing Our Weed) while New Line Cinema has also put a number of comedies into active development in recent months. Perhaps studios are planning to recommit to a genre that, in the last few years, has struggled to find a foothold in the modern Hollywood landscape.

Next Wednesday, come back for part two of this column, where we'll look at how good premises and the rate of inflation have also hindered the big-screen comedy.

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