Breaking the rules to break the bank

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Prognosticators of comedy boxoffice success often can have a lot in common with one's grandmother: They live on superstition and speculation. To wit -- an "R"-rated film can't perform outside a niche audience. Adults only attend kids' offerings with their offspring. Men only attend female-driven comedies with their significant (female, usually) others.

And just like with grandma's adages, quite a bit of the time they're simply wrong. That "R" rating limitation? Tell that to Sacha Baron Cohen, whose 2006 Fox comedy "Borat" topped $125 million at the domestic boxoffice less than two months after its Nov. 3 release. (Someone also forgot to tell Baron Cohen that one needs an A-list star to rake in that kind of business.) As for the parents at kids' films? Ben Stiller's late-December Fox release "Night at the Museum" sent that one out the window once it became the seventh most popular comedy of the year, totaling some $127 million at the domestic boxoffice by the end of 2006; to date, its domestic receipts total $205 million. And women only see their movies with other women? "The Devil Wears Prada" (again, those wily Fox folks) brought in more than $120 million in receipts stateside. Perhaps it just helps to be distributed by Fox.

But many of the top-grossing films of 2006 managed to find success while keeping their comedy smart -- if not always highbrow. "Borat" earned a Golden Globe Award for Baron Cohen's lead performance, as well as best picture and adapted screenplay nominations. Meryl Streep scored a Globe for best actress in "Devil" and was Oscar-nominated for her role. Meanwhile, "Cars" was the No. 1 comedy of the year, grossing more than $244 million in domestic boxoffice receipts, and it also took home a Golden Globe for best animated film and earned an Oscar nomination. And Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine," which made close to $60 million domestically before year's end, earned two Golden Globe nominations and was Oscar-nominated for best picture, original screenplay and supporting actor and actress. No one would accuse any of those success stories of playing dumb.

If anything, they were unconventional, thanks in large part to actors such as Baron Cohen, Stiller and Will Ferrell (who appeared in the year's third-highest-grossing comedy, Sony's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," and "Stranger Than Fiction"). Raised on improv, actors like those are more accustomed to performing for audiences rather than studio suits -- which, in a roundabout way, pleases executives even more. Says Columbia Pictures co-president of production Doug Belgrad: "Back when people like Dan Aykroyd and (John) Belushi were coming up, (NBC's) 'Saturday Night Live' was really the only hotbed for developing audiences. There were only a few networks, and no cable, so there weren't a lot of ways for talent to develop an audience and experience. These actors are used to responding to what an audience is getting."

Adds fellow Columbia co-president of production Matt Tolmach: "My experience with 'Talladega Nights' is that this is a group of people who are looking for the best joke. When people aren't laughing, the jokes aren't working, and whether it's Adam Sandler with (2006's) 'Click'" -- the No. 4 comedy of the year with earnings of $137 million stateside -- "or Will Ferrell, these guys grew up doing improv, so they understand that. They do a lot on the fly, and that's often where the magic happens. It can certainly make our jobs easier."

Working hard turns out strong results, whether it's drama or comedy, says "Museum" director Shawn Levy. "People like Stiller, Owen Wilson, Steve Carell and Will Ferrell are the creme de la creme. They are all going for multiple takes in search of the better line. It's the defining trait of this generation. The ones who are on top don't just show up, perform the script and go home."

In fact, most of the talent behind last year's top-grossing films have taken months to actively develop their characters and the scripts, along with fellow writers, producers and directors. "With 'Talladega Nights,' it was Will -- who co-wrote the film with Adam McKay -- saying, 'I'm going to do this character, and Adam is going to direct it,'" Belgrad says.

Adds "Talladega" producer Judd Apatow: "That's the fun of making movies with actors who are also writers. Will and Adam have been partners for years, and they've known for years what the movie is they want to do. It's not about making the movie work around them."

Similarly, "Borat" producer Jay Roach worked with Baron Cohen for two years before filming began, and "Click" director Frank Coraci also directed Sandler in 1998's "The Wedding Singer" and "The Waterboy."

Levy credits his close working relationship with Stiller for making "Night" such a hit. "Ben and I trusted our respective instincts," says Levy, who also directed 2006's 10th-highest-grossing comedy, Sony's "The Pink Panther." "Ben trusted that I know what family audiences will respond to, and I trusted that Ben would keep the teeth in the comedy," he says. "I kept an eye on family appeal, but Ben made sure we would never soften the edges of the comedy (to play it safe). In our first meeting, we agreed the movie would be appealing to all audiences and be a more edgy comedy than a standard family film. And that's what accounts for people going to see the movie on date night."

It was just that ability to cross over that vaulted the top comedies of the year to multimillion-dollar success. And for every movie like Sony's December offering "The Holiday," which proved unable to break out of its distaff niche, there was a film like "Devil," the success of which surprised even Fox 2000 president of production Elizabeth Gabler.

"We just made the movie we wanted to make, but we never expected men would love it, too," she says. "I felt like we were OK if we just got a strong female audience. We got our first hint about its potential audience when we showed it to the guys in distribution, and they loved it, and then it just went from there. It was just a good lesson to go with your instincts."

And that, at the end of last year, was the only rule that mattered.

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