Can big-screen comedy survive superhero era?

NEW YORK — Days before the opening of the Will Ferrell-Amy Poehler comedy The House, producer Adam McKay could see the writing on the wall. The box-office forecast wasn’t looking good.

 

In the end, The House opened with just $8.7 million, the latest in an increasingly long line of comedy flops. The House may have had its problems (Warner Bros. opted to not even screen it for critics) but what stood out was how dispiritedly typical it was.

Unless the upcoming Girls Trip – promoted as the black, female version of The Hangover – breaks out, this summer will likely pass without a big comedy hit. Rough Night, Baywatch and Snatched have all disappointed despite the star power of Scarlett Johansson, Dwayne Johnson and Amy Schumer, respectively. The lone sensation has been the Kumail Nanjiani-led, Judd Apatow-produced The Big Sick. But that Lionsgate-Amazon release is a specialty one; it’s made $6.8 million in three weeks of limited release.Laughs are drying up at the multiplex, and it’s a trend that goes beyond this summer. Last year, the shockingly poor performance of Andy Samberg’s Popstar ($9.6 million in its entire run) foreshadowed trouble to come.

There have been some successes (Bad Moms, Sausage Party, Trainwreck) but it’s been a long while since a cultural sensation like The 40 Year-Old Virgin, The Hangover or Bridesmaids.

The downturn begs the question: Can the big-screen comedy survive the superhero era? As studios have increasingly focused on intellectual property-backed franchises that play around the globe, comedies are getting squeezed. Though usually relatively inexpensive, comedies often don’t fit the blockbuster agenda of risk-adverse Hollywood.

“They really want these movies to work in China and Russia, and comedies don’t always work like that,” says Apatow.

Many in Hollywood express optimism that a turnaround could and will be sparked by something fresh and exciting. But they also described an unmistakable sense that the era of Pineapple Express and Step Brothers may be closing – and that an increasingly restrictive Hollywood landscape is partly to blame.

Comedies have often recycled familiar, previously profitable formulas. McKay has watched marketing departments increasingly dictate which comedies get green-lit.

“That’s their whole thing: ‘What’s the formula so we can go to the boardroom?’” says McKay. “All of a sudden, I start noticing that people keep asking for comedies to look like other comedies. And we keep saying, ‘Yeah, but comedies have to be original.’”

But original can be a scary word in Hollywood. Thus the Ghostbusters reboot, thus Baywatch. At the same time, other formats – Old School-like party movies, for example – have grown stale.

Comedies historically have been strong sellers after theatrical release. “You can’t really do that now,” says producer Michael De Luca, who produced comedies like Rush Hour. “You have to be a theatrical event when you open.”

But the next generation might gravitate to HBO or FX or Netflix instead. That’s where you find many of today’s most exciting comic voices, like Donald Glover (Atlanta), Lena Dunham (Girls) and Issa Rae (Insecure).

The path to a nationwide movie release is more difficult and may offer less creative freedom, unless you have a big-name producer like James L. Brooks, who shepherded Kelly Fremon Craig’s terrific debut The Edge of Seventeen to the screen last year.

A large percentage of recent comedies have starred either Kevin Hart, Seth Rogen, Melissa McCarthy or Ferrell – who are, granted, some of the funniest people alive.

“You see a lot of the big Hollywood comedies have the same people playing the same type of people in the same sort of … situations,” says Nanjiani, who also stars on HBO’s Silicon Valley. “The fact that there’s only a handful of people that are deemed worthy of being big comedy leads, it means that you can’t really have that much variance in the types of movies that get made.”

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