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The opening of the R-rated comedy Bad Moms over the weekend didn’t turn into a case of “girls gone wild” at the box office. While the bawdy laffer from STX Entertainment scored a solid $23.4 million debut in North America, that wasn’t boisterous enough to reverse a general trend of comic apathy among moviegoers.
A downturn in grosses for comedies has box-office pundits, studio executives, producers, agents and managers alarmed. Comedies have always been a hot commodity, since they are cheaper to make than big-budget tentpoles and, when they hit, can play for weeks. The only downside for most is that they don’t perform as well internationally.
While R-rated comedies have encountered the most resistance, other brands of comedy are not immune.
Among comedy sub-genres, action comedies currently seem to be faring the best and lead the pack. The top-grossing comedy of 2016 to date is Central Intelligence, which has earned $125.3 million in North America since its June release and $202.6 million globally. The New Line and Universal film is surely benefiting from its two huge stars, Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart.
But even some action comedies are showing slight fatigue. Ride Along, which like Central Intelligence was rated PG-13, teamed Hart with Ice Cube, and grossed a stellar $135 million in North America in January 2014; but Ride Along 2, released this past January, topped out at $91 million.
Separately, Sony’s big-budget Ghostbusters reboot, a summer VFX comedy, has struggled, earning just $106 million domestically after three weekends despite its all-female leads.
Surely, R-rated comedies are triggering the most concern. Earlier this year, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping bombed badly, topping out at less than $10 million domestically, while Keanu only made it to $21 million. Melissa McCarthy’s The Boss earned less than her other films with just $79 million worldwide, while Tiny Fey’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a war dramedy, likewise lagged.
The July comedy Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, starring Zac Efron and Adam Devine, has also failed to catch on in a meaningful way, earning a meek $44 million through its fourth weekend. And in late May, Universal’s Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising opened to $22 million — 55 percent behind the $49 million launch of the original Neighbors in May 2014. All told, the sequel has grossed $107 million worldwide, compared to $271 million for the first film.
“You have to be really compelling and become part of the cultural zeitgeist,” said one top studio executive. “That was the fun thing about Bridesmaids. It actually had an uplifting appeal. Even The Hangover was like that. Comedies have always been the hardest thing to get right. You can’t just slam together some raunchy jokes.”
Bad Moms could buck the trend, but the verdict is still out. STX projected a three-day take in the $27 million-$30 million range on Saturday morning after a robust Friday. The film received an A CinemaScore, a strong indicator that word of mouth would continue to drive the Mila Kunis-Kristen Bell starrer. But then traffic at the turnstiles slowed more than expected, and it became clear that it wouldn’t overtake Bridesmaids (which earned $26 million during its opening weekend in 2011) or last year’s Spy ($29 million) and Trainwreck ($30 million). The big question now is whether it will have svelte legs. STX insists it will.
“It’s a good score for STX, but it certainly didn’t reboot the R-rated comedy. It just it gave it a little more time,” said box-office analyst Jeff Bock. “R-rated comedies, like any other genre in Hollywood, are susceptible to being stuck in a rut of copycat trends and uninspired rehashes. What has always worked when it comes to comedy, though, is putting a fresh spin on an old concept. Catching the zeitgeist in a bottle is often very difficult, especially for a comedy, which is why comedy sequels, more often than not, fall flat.”
In summer 2012, the high-concept comedy Ted opened on the same weekend in late June as the titillating Magic Mike, which also contained dramatic elements. Against the odds, both prospered. But while Magic Mike did $167 million globally, Ted grabbed a whopping $549 million at the global box office, continuing the dazzling success of groundbreaking R-rated comedies like The Hangover, which earned $467 worldwide in 2009, and the female-skewing Bridesmaids, whose global haul was $288 million.
For all of 2012, the top five comedies of the year brought in a combined $1.49 billion in global grosses; the year before, worldwide grosses for the top five comedies clocked in at $1.52 billion, thanks to the likes of The Hangover II, Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher, Just Go With It (whose star Adam Sandler is now making movies for Netflix) and Horrible Bosses. That same number dropped to $1.28 billion in 2013, $1.12 billion in 2014 and roughly the same in 2015. So far this year, comedies have brought in about $650 million.
The tell-tale signs of a developing slump came in 2015 when Ted 2, opening in late June, topped out at $217 million worldwide, 61 percent behind the first film. And sequel Magic Mike XXL earned $123 million globally, a 27 percent dip from Magic Mike.
An agent who has enjoyed success with the genre in the past described the current comedy landscape, particularly R-rated, as “very tough.” That sentiment was echoed by a literary manager active in the spec script space. “It’s basically a non-starter right now,” the manager said of comedy pitches. “If I’m selling a male-led comedy, I try to position it as an action-comedy, so at least it has a chance. And you still have a shot if it’s a female ensemble.”
For female-minded chuckles, Bad Moms could help the cause if it plays and plays, particularly since a pair of 2015 titles clicked: Pitch Perfect 2, which grossed $288 million globally, more than double the first film; and Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, which earned a solid $141 million.
Underscoring the interest in handing the punchlines over to women, one of the only comedy specs to generate heat this summer was Besties, which sold to DreamWorks and Montecito this month for mid-six figures. Written by Cassie Daniels and Mark Bartosic, the story follows a woman who finds a long-lost love note and then sets off on a road trip with her three best friends to break up the wedding of her childhood crush. (Paramount, STX and Universal had also been pursuing it.)
For male-led comedies, some studios are now looking at reboots of beloved classics rather than sequels or new material. Warner Bros. is trying to revive Caddyshack, for example.
And family comedies released around the year-end holidays still seem to be safe. Last Christmas, Daddy’s Home, starring Will Ferrell and Mark Walhlberg, earned $240.4 million. This fall, there’s Almost Christmas (Nov. 11), Office Christmas Party (Dec. 9) and Why Him?, starring Bryan Cranston and James Franco (Dec. 25).
But, tellingly, some of the actors and actresses who can fetch the biggest paychecks for comedies are exploring other genres. Hart has been doing animated voice roles of late, like for the summer hit The Secret Life of Pets and 2017 release Captain Underpants. He will next make the family movie Jumanji for Sony.
Following her Trainwreck success, Schumer signed on for a supporting role in the PTSD drama Thank You for Your Service for DreamWorks. Even though she is currently filming Fox’s untitled mother-daughter film with comedian Goldie Hawn, that project is tellingly being billed as an action-comedy.
Melissa McCarthy also is set to make a drama for Fox Searchlight, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but will return to her brand of comedy for Life of the Party at New Line, which has been set for a May 11, 2018, release.
“The movie business is changing so dramatically, and comedy is just part of that,” said one manager. “And it’s true that studios are looking to make fewer comedies. And I think they are increasingly reluctant to invest in movies that don’t have a big international market. New Line, however, is still willing. It becomes a problem that feeds on itself. It’s harder to get new, exciting voices to focus on feature films because they can do television.”
Added box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian: “The tried-and-true antidote to blockbuster fare has been R-rated summer comedy. Those used to be no-brainer hits. They were once outliers, and therefore those films had a novelty factor. But it’s worn off because everyone jumped on the bandwagon. And younger audiences are staying away.”
A huge test, particularly for the younger set, will be the upcoming animated R-rated comedy Sausage Party, produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Annapurna Pictures and Sony will release the film Aug. 12.
“Comedy, like love stories, will always work if executed well,” said another top studio executive. “People want to cry, and they want to laugh.”
As such, no one is calling off the next bacchanal just yet.
On the horizon are Sony’s Rock That Body, a Scarlett Johansson raunch-fest that is in preproduction and dated for June 23, 2017. Other 2017 comedies include the Owen Wilson-Ed Helms pairing Bastards, which is in postproduction and is set to bow Jan. 27, and a Dax Shepard CHiPs big-screen adaptation scheduled for Aug. 11 — both from Warner Bros. They will be joined next year by New Line’s The House, starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler and set for a June 30 debut. But in a sign of the current uncertainty surrounding comedies, Universal’s Rogen vehicle The Something continues to hover on the edge of a green light but has yet to go into production.
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