Spoofs seek proof of life at box office

Once profitable genre may be losing steam

Is the joke on spoofs?

Historically durable and profitable, the laugh-a-minute genre is showing signs of exhaustion. With New Regency's latest effort, "Vampires Suck," opening in theaters Wednesday, audiences will have their latest chance to prove there's still blood coursing through those comedic veins.

But some spoof boosters are not optimistic.

"Right now, spoof is creatively dead," writer-director Craig Mazin ("Scary Movie 3," "Superhero Movie") said. "There's a big quality problem, and there needs to be a big shift."

The creative team behind "Suck," which takes its inspiration from the global popularity of the "Twilight" movies and the current obsession with vampires generally, is seasoned with the newest, 21st century-style of spoof movie. Writer-directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer have had a hand in "Spy Hard," "Scary Movie," "Date Movie," "Epic Movie," "Meet the Spartans" and "Disaster Movie" (that last one proved far too true to its name).

Almost all are concept-driven projects that don't hold to any real story line and are nothing more than grab bags meant to survey the year in pop culture. In the days before its release, "Suck" is tracking best among young women (again, the "Twilight" connection) and might at best leave its five-day opening with grosses in the high-teen millions. On the scale of the most successful spoofs, a final domestic boxoffice tally in the $35 million range would be pretty middling.

Still, in all but the rarest cases, spoofs make money, which is why studios and producers seem ever ready to produce another one -- creative integrity be damned.

The vaunted history of the genre might derive from the inspired creative lunacy of Mel Brooks, the David Zucker-Jim Abrahams-Jerry Zucker troika and the Wayans clan, but the new iterations are more mercenary affairs.

The most successful releases in the genre caught the zeitgeist organically. Mike Myers and New Line Cinema's "Austin Powers" trilogy grossed hundreds of millions worldwide on budgets that never were more than $63 million. Dimension and Keenen Ivory Wayans' "Scary Movie" scared up $278 million worldwide in 2000 with a budget in the $20 million range. Although budgets for sequel installments eventually climbed to $60 million, grosses for "Scary Movie 3" and "Scary Movie 4" still landed above $130 million worldwide. The Leslie Nielsen "Naked Gun" franchise doubled or tripled its investments.

But even the most craven attempts to cash in on the spoof gravy train -- "Not Another Date Movie," "Epic Movie," etc. -- are strong bets. As long as budgets remain small, like $15 million to $30 million, theses movies are not much of a gamble.

Here's why: Among all variations of American comedy, this is the only one that translates overseas. Half of the "Scary Movie" money comes from international. The 1991 "Top Gun" spoof "Hot Shots!" made nearly twice its $70 million domestic haul overseas. The more recent crop averages about a 50-50 split between U.S. and foreign audiences, so even a seeming stinker like "Meet the Spartans" (a goof on "300") can gross $84.6 million worldwide, with more than half of that total coming from foreign audiences.

Mazin chalks this up to two key elements of the spoof: It's mostly physical comedy, which knows no borders, and the types of movies lampooned always are big Hollywood products that play around the world.

Other common parameters of the genre are hugely beneficial to the way the movies play. For one thing, they are impervious to -- and even can benefit from -- low production values, so a large budget isn't necessary. Mazin called this the "cheap-is-better factor."

"Because the whole point of a spoof is to take the piss out of Hollywood excess, they tend to be funnier when they look cheaper," he said.

Spoofs also are built for young audiences that typically are less discerning; they don't require major stars; and often they're extremely short, running 80-90 minutes, meaning theaters can get away with more showtimes. As a corollary, spoofs play well in ancillary markets because their silly, mindless content makes for easy repeat viewing and doesn't call out for the theatrical experience.

"You don't need to see a spoof movie on the big screen," Mazin said. "It's not 'Avatar.' You could watch it on your iPod and pretty much get the point. In that regard, they're also pretty robust entertainment; they can live anywhere."

As a result, flops are rare. They do happen -- "Dance Flick," "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," "An American Carol" -- but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Then again, the profit margin appears to be shrinking.

Which is why the creative part actually matters. Although the instinct to throw no-brainer visual jokes about Lady Gaga and the "Jersey Shore" cast ensures the up-the-minute recognition factor, audiences respond with more enthusiasm when presented with the actual spine of a story.

"It's supposed to be dumb on some level," Mazin said. "But there's smart dumb and dumb dumb."