'Grown Ups 2' Presents Big Test for Adam Sandler (Analysis)

Issue 24 BIZ Sandler Illustration - H 2013
Kyle Hilton

Issue 24 BIZ Sandler Illustration - H 2013

The aging comedy icon's first sequel comes at a key moment as Sony's $20 million man rebounds from knocks on his lucrative brand.

This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Throughout his career, Adam Sandler had purposely avoided sequels.

But in late 2011, the comic needed to switch up his game. Sandwiched between the underwhelming Jack and Jill and the disastrous That's My Boy, he decided to make a follow-up to Grown Ups, his top-grossing live-action film at $271 million worldwide.

When Grown Ups 2 hits theaters July 12, the film will mark a pivotal moment for the Sandler comedy brand, which has taken a bit of a hit but is still considered among the strongest in Hollywood.

A source familiar with Sandler's dealmaking says Sony paid him $20 million to star in and $5 million to produce 2010's Grown Ups (against nearly 19 percent of first-dollar gross). Given his diminished leverage, the terms were scaled back slightly for the sequel (the upfront fee was the same, but he instead will split his backend in a deferred pool with other cast members).

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Early tracking for Grown Ups 2 bodes well for the 46-year-old former Saturday Night Live star, who parlayed his average-dude shtick into a lucrative acting and producing career via his Happy Madison company. Grown Ups 2 is projected to open as well as if not better than the original, which earned $41 million in its debut frame, and its early awareness is stronger than fellow July 12 release Pacific Rim.

But the question is, how fast will the $80 million-budgeted film drop in a crowded summer? At stake is Sandler's long-standing relationship with Sony, which some sources characterize as strained thanks to the R-rated misfire That's My Boy. The raunchy pairing with Andy Samberg cost $70 million but took in only $58 million worldwide and came on the heels of Sandler's stab at drag, Jack and Jill, which cost $79 million and earned just $74 million domestically and $150 million worldwide.

But the studio scoffs at the idea of any fissures in the relationship, pointing to the success of its Sandler-voiced animated film Hotel Transylvania, which earned $347 million worldwide and is getting a sequel. "Since we first worked together on Big Daddy in 1999, Adam and the team at Happy Madison have been an important part of our family," says Sony chief Amy Pascal. "Adam is a dear friend, and we are proud that Sony is his creative home."

Although the star has made movies at other studios during his Sony tenure, including Disney (Bedtime Stories), Paramount (The Longest Yard) and Universal (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry), Sony has benefited much more from such Sandler hits as You Don't Mess With the Zohan, Just Go With It, Click and 50 First Dates. He and the studio have expertly managed his brand, rotating between raunchy comedy, family-friendly PG pictures and the occasional rom-com, all while working with the same small group of filmmakers that include Dennis Dugan and Peter Segal.

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But insiders say that Sony didn't get its way when the studio wanted to make a follow-up to the Happy Madison-produced Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which cost $26 million but reaped $183 million worldwide. (Sandler and producing partner Jack Giarraputo nixed the idea). And Pascal -- long considered one of Hollywood's most talent-friendly executives -- has tightened deals in recent months. In October, her studio passed on the Sandler Western Ridiculous 6, prompting the WME-repped star to take the project to Paramount.

"I think there's a legitimate question mark about the economics of his rich deal amid his recent track record," notes a rival studio chief. (Sandler, who eschews print media, declined to comment.)

In a sign that Sandler's stratospheric deals are coming down to earth, Ridiculous 6 was shopped to studios with a price tag of only $5 million for Sandler and no first-dollar gross, according to a well-placed source. (Paramount denies it is paying Sandler that figure.)

And for now, the only live-action Sandler film on the horizon for Sony is the animation hybrid Pixels (he will appear in the film as a live-action character). He also is set to reprise his voice role in the Hotel Transylvania sequel.

Instead, Sandler is making a number of comedies at other studios, including Blended opposite Drew Barrymore for Warner Bros. and the Chris Columbus-helmed Hello Ghost for Universal -- projects that in the past would have seemed ripe for Sony's pipeline.

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But a source close to the actor cautioned against reading too much into Sandler's future projects. "These other movies are at different studios simply because the script was generated elsewhere," the source explains.

Perhaps most telling would be the status of Sandler's rich first-look deal. But Sony declined to specify when the Happy Madison deal expires at the studio.

Says Pascal, "We have enjoyed great success in the past and look forward to working together for many years to come."

Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.

E-mail: Tatiana.Siegel@THR.com
Twitter: @TatianaSiegel27