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 for the film wasn't looking good.
In the end, The House opened with just $8.7-million (U.S.), 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 about the result was how dispiritingly typical it was.
"This has just been happening a lot. If it's not our comedies, it's other comedies from friends of ours that just are underperforming very consistently," said McKay, whose production company with Ferrell makes a handful of comedies a year.
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 the trouble to come. There have been some successes (Bad Moms, Sausage Party, Trainwreck, Central Intelligence, Spy) 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 propositions, 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," Apatow says.
In interviews with many top names in comedy, as well as numerous studio executives, many in Hollywood expressed optimism that a turnaround could and will be sparked by something fresh and exciting – a Get Out for comedy. But they also described an unmistakable sense that the era of Superbad, Pineapple Express and Step Brothers may be closing – and that an increasingly restrictive Hollywood landscape is partly to blame.
"It does worry me because it feels like the studios aren't developing as many comedy scripts," Apatow adds. "In the old days, they used to buy a lot of scripts and develop them. And now it feels like times have changed. Unless you bring them a script with an actor or actress and a director and it's all packaged, there's not a lot of chances to get comedies made. We have a nice reputation so we're able to get our movies made most of the time. But I feel like there's not as many young comedy writers writing movies. I think a lot of them are headed toward television and I think that's bad for the movies."
The comedies that have managed to get made have often recycled many of the familiar, previously profitable formulas. McKay has watched marketing departments increasingly dictate which comedies get greenlit.
"That's their whole thing: 'What's the formula so we can go to the boardroom?'" McKay says. "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 today's Hollywood. Thus, the Ghostbusters reboot, thus Baywatch. At the same time, other formats – Old School-like party movies, for example – have grown a little stale from overuse.
"What I think you're seeing in the last three years is just fatigue with those structures," McKay says. "They did the worst thing that a comedy can ever do, which is start to feel familiar. I really think this isn't permanent. It's going to break out but what it's going to require is three or four accidents to happen again, like Austin Powers and Anchorman."
Both of those films also depended on a long afterlife on home video; comedies historically have been especially strong sellers after theatrical release. "You can't really do that now," says producer Michael De Luca, who championed Austin Powers at New Line and produced comedies like Rush Hour and The Love Guru. "You have to be a theatrical event when you open."
De Luca recalled the thunderbolt experience of reading the spec script for American Pie, which heralded the explosion of R-rated comedy.
"I do feel like these things are cyclical," De Luca says. "Each generation discovers their punk-rock comedy. It may not have happened yet for the generation that's coming up behind Seth Rogen, who was behind Judd Apatow."
But the next generation might gravitate to HBO or FX or Netflix instead. That's where you'll 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 in your corner 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 high-stakes but not-too-high-stakes 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."
But even the top stars are having a more difficult time. Ahead of the release of Sony's Sausage Party, Rogen acknowledged he's seen first-hand that comedies are getting harder and harder to make.
"The truth is, you're now probably better off selling it to Netflix or something. Which is a bummer," Rogen says. "You look at a lot of comedies and it's just like: Five years ago that would have made $120-million and now, unless there's big action, huge helicopters and tanks and car chases, just people talking and being funny is a lot harder to do."
Sausage Party was a gleefully raunchy animated comedy about grocery store food that most studios would have immediately turned down. It went on to make $98-million domestically on a $20-million budget, packing theatres with cackling audiences.
It was a good reminder that even at a time when many doubt the future of the theatrical experience, nothing beats a good comedy.