Why U.S. Comedy Is Falling Flat at AFM

sacha baron cohen - GETTY - H 2016
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Changing demographics and the rise of locally made fare dampens enthusiasm for American laughs: "They just don’t seem to travel as well as they used to."

The 2016 American Film Market catalog of films may feature a disgraced skater (I, Tonya), a Jewish lesbian romance (Disobedience) and a semi-autobiographical account of clinical depression (The Bell Jar), but among the prestige titles on offer, there doesn’t seem to be a whole heap of LOLs.

That changed in dramatic fashion Friday when Sacha Baron Cohen’s silly train steamrolled into Santa Monica, with his newly announced remake of hit Danish R-rated comedy Klown from Annapurna Pictures instantly becoming one of the market’s splashier offerings. (One seller told The Hollywood Reporter that several meetings were canceled as distributors instead flocked to the comic’s presentation.)

But even the oversized clown shoes of Ali G can’t hide the fact that independent U.S. comedy — especially the out-and-out gut-busters that skew toward the male audience that flocks to Baron Cohen — is having a trickier time generating global laughs (the less said about The Brothers Grimsby, the better).

"American comedies just don’t seem to travel as well as they used to," says Sean O’Kelly of U.K. sales and distribution banner Carnaby International, who adds that buyers are instead reacting to those films that blend genres. "We’re finding many people purely looking for action-comedy."

Case in point: Carnaby’s Salty, which sees Antonio Banderas in a "role you’ve never seen him in before," as a former rock god whose supermodel wife (Olga Kurylenko) is kidnapped by South American pirates. Several international deals were struck for the film before the market opened its doors.

"It’s tough, but there is still an audience, still a market — it’s just about finding out how to place it," adds Elie Mechoulam of startup Truffle Pictures, which is offering Hippopotamus, based on Stephen Fry’s novel and sporting a lineup of British comedy regulars. "But universal comedy doesn’t travel.”

Whereas much comedy previously could have often allowed the jokes to take center stage, most titles — in both the studio and independent worlds — now are having to rely on star power to provide the box-office boost (though one seller questioned whether Baron Cohen was still a "star" anymore after Grimsby’s grim reception).

"Comedy now has to be star-driven. Without big stars, you can’t sell it," says Foresight Unlimited president Tamara Birkemoe. She also points to a disconnect between what the global audience wants in terms of laughs and what will get American moviegoers chortling. "Romantic comedies work really well internationally, for example, but domestically they’re dead," says Birkemore.

Comedy also is following a trend seen across the entire market: a focus on female moviegoers. While the Robert De Niro-starring Dirty Grandpa and The Rock-toplined Central Intelligence did decent numbers ("But Zac Efron pulled in the women on Dirty Grandpa, says Birkemore), most of the funny films at AFM feature strong female leads.

Amid Fortitude’s strong comedy lineup is Coup d’Etat, in which Michael Caine’s overthrown dictator seeks refuge with a rebellious teenage girl and her mom (Katie Holmes) in suburban America, while HanWay’s Swimming With Men sees Rob Brydon join a synchronized swimming team to win back his wife.

Swimming With Men highlights another factor: how the growing laughs from locally produced fare now are drowning out major U.S. comedies at the international box office. Fack ju Gothe (Suck Me Shakespeer) took in more than $70 million in Germany in 2013, while China’s Goodbye Mr. Loser scored a phenomenal $227 million last year.

Even in the English-speaking world, it’s a similar story. The biggest opening of all time for a comedy in the U.K. is 2014’s The Inbetweeners Movie 2, while Ireland’s The Young Offenders recently grossed more than $1 million at home. “Strangely, Irish comedy seems to travel better than English,” says O’Kelly.