Judd Apatow finds himself at crossroads

'Funny' boxoffice doesn't lower filmmaker's stock

NEW YORK -- In the wake of Judd Apatow's latest film "Funny People" opening to a middling $22.6 million, Hollywood was eager to pass judgment on the hyphenate's stock.

Their verdict: It's still very high.

Managers, agents and development execs interviewed Monday said that Apatow's minor misstep at the boxoffice as well as some industry grumbling about the picture's length and tone weren't likely to affect his standing with studios.

"This is someone who still makes movies at a pretty low cost, works with amazing talent and has the boxoffice track record to back him up," one talent rep said.

Or as Underground Management's Trevor Engleson, who reps a number of comedy clients, put it: "If I were his manager, I wouldn't tell him to change anything. The town is going to let him continue making the movies he wants to make."

"People" underperformed compared to Apatow's last pic ("Knocked Up," which opened to $30.7 million on the way to a $149 million domestic cume) and is likely not to get even close to the $109 million of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," his feature debut that became a word-of-mouth sensation four years ago.

Despite the presence of Adam Sandler, "People" struggled to reach even the lower bar of $25 million that some observers had set and continues a cold streak of sorts for Apatow Prods., which also saw disappointing results for "Year One" earlier this summer. (For more on the numbers of Apatow and his banner, click here).

Still, some execs pointed out that the Universal release earned in its opening weekend about one-third of its estimated $75 million budget, which could -- though not necessarily will -- put it on a path to breaking even.

Many also were willing to give Apatow a pass because he tried something off-brand by tackling more serious themes. They said that Universal, which last week signed him to a three-picture directing deal, made the right move to lock up Apatow despite the shaky tracking for "People."

Since the movie pushed in a dramatic direction with mixed critical and commercial results, there's a question about what direction those upcoming Uni pics could take -- will Apatow continue with the dramatic elements of "People" or revert to earlier form?

Because the filmmaker tends to write his own material, developing his scripts with an intimate group and then casting among an almost equally small coterie, little is known about his projects while they're in development.

Nor do they take a long time to come together; Apatow has been on a bi-annual directing schedule since 2005's "Virgin."

One talent rep said that he believes Apatow would find a way to go back to the high-concept material that marked his previous ideas, the kind that could be summarized succinctly ("Schlub gets hot girl pregnant") while still tapping into the zeitgeist.

"I still think he does something relevant and very observational," the rep said. "But I think he goes back to something with a big hook."

Others said they could envision him continuing in a dramatic direction, and that "People" would smooth the way.

"He has to ease his way up the slope," said Conan Smith, the former Endeavor rep who has launched his own comedy-centric banner, Ante Up Prods. "But once you get to the top of that slope, you have a newfound audience."

If there is a more significant change in the cards, it will be on the producing side. After some mixed results with his production slate during the past 18 months, Apatow Prods. will likely concentrate on its homegrown talent.

Arguably the two movies from the Apatow Prods. factory that struggled the most, Sony's recent period comedy "Year One" and Paramount's Owen Wilson-starrer "Drillbit Taylor," were not developed and honed in-house in the way that, say, "Pineapple Express" was.

The cupboard is now a little more bare than it's been in the past, when several Apatow Prods. were shooting or in post at the same time.

In fact, there's only one unreleased project now beyond the development stage. For the first time since 2006, next year will bring only one Apatow Prods. title: the music comedy "Get Him to the Greek," which spins off Russell Brand's deluded rock star from "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and reunites several of that pic's actors with director Nicholas Stoller.

That lull should allow Apatow to decide what direction he'd like to take.

There are titles on the Apatow Prods. slate with proven Apatow proteges like Jonah Hill (the adoption comedy "The Middle Child," which Hill has written) and another Stoller-Segel collaboration, the couples tale "Five-Year Engagement."

At the same time, the calm offers a chance to develop newer names within the Apatow fold. That includes figures like Ian Berger and David Krumholtz, who have penned development projects like the buddy comedy "A Whole New Hugh" and hip-hop sendup "Attorneys at Raw," respectively.

"Judd was smart. He struck while the iron is hot," one development exec said in describing the development slate. "That means he's not going to have as much as he once did. But knowing him, he'll put a few other things forward. Even if 2010 is quiet, 2011 will be busy again."

Borys Kit in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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