Everyone remembers their first R-rated movie. Maybe you snuck into a theater trying to pass as 17, or maybe your parents didn’t care for censorship. Either way — whether it’s a movie with gore, expletives or nudity — that first experience leaves an impression.
Max Handelman, who co-founded Brownstone Productions with his wife, Elizabeth Banks, recalls watching John Landis’ “Kentucky Fried Movie” and “Animal House” in his youth. His colleague Alison Small, head of film at Brownstone, distinctly recalls watching “White Men Can’t Jump” with her family and seeing “American Pie” in a packed theater with friends.
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Now, Handelman and Small have found success trying to rekindle that experience for a new generation of moviegoers, with two of this year’s stand-out R-rated comedies: “Cocaine Bear” and “Bottoms.”
That has been an uphill battle. For years, most R-rated comedies have struggled to connect at the box office, from “Joy Ride” and “Renfield” to “Bros” and “Long Shot.” But in February, the horror-comedy “Cocaine Bear” opened to a solid $23 million domestically, ultimately grossing $89 million worldwide. In August, the teen sex comedy “Bottoms” had one of the strongest limited debuts of the year with a $46,000 per theater average in 10 locations.
With the success of these two films, Brownstone is playing a significant role in reviving the R-rated comedy. “Bottoms,” Emma Seligman’s follow-up to her indie comedy “Shiva Baby,” follows two lesbian teenage best friends who start a female fight club at school under the guise of empowering women, when their true goal is to sleep with their cheerleader crushes. The partly true “Cocaine Bear,” directed by Banks, tells the story of a bear who consumes several pounds of cocaine and subsequently goes on a drug-induced rampage.
While Handelman acknowledges that “Cocaine Bear” and “Bottoms” are vastly different films, he identifies their originality as their connective tissue. They both feature a unique, campy premise and include plenty of blood. Neither film is afraid of pushing boundaries.
However, the premise alone isn’t enough to convince Handelman to back a film. What he loves about “Cocaine Bear” and “Bottoms” are the characters at the center of their stories. Both he and Banks are “first and foremost” drawn to grounded protagonists.
“As crazy as those concepts were, they had, at their core, fantastic characters who interacted with each other in very fun and relatable ways,” Handelman says. “So I think that’s why we responded to both of those scripts in the way we did. And from that kind of relatability and distinctive characters can come this crazy comedy.”
Producing a film with over-the-top content does come, however, with its own set of difficulties, especially given comedy’s recent track record at the box office. The very things that make an R-rated film stand out also run the risk of potentially ostracizing a wide audience needed to make movies commercially viable.
“The challenge is that whenever there’s something that’s perceived as a failure, it just makes it harder and harder to get similar types of movies made,” Small says. “No one knows where the line is. There’s always that question of, ‘If it’s R-rated, will that audience be able to go see it? Or do we need to make it PG-13 so that audience will see it?’ It’s just hard to know what works.”
Finding that line, let alone convincing a studio to walk it, can be enormously challenging.
“We’re in this interesting time in the theatrical world, where studios are increasingly looking for distinctive original films, and audiences seem to be craving non-IP driven films,” Handelman says. “Yet at the same time, studios seem very reluctant to make those because there also is a history of them not working. It’s a frustrating paradox that we live in.”
Given the fickle nature of the market and the studios’ desire for bankable movies, Handelman is grateful that “Cocaine Bear” and “Bottoms” have been positively received. Their success can largely be attributed to the respective tones of the two films. Handelman emphasizes the importance of striking the perfect tone — and just how delicate that process is.
“If you’re off by 10%, they just become wildly different movies,” he says. “[With] ‘Pitch Perfect,’ if we’d been off by 10% in one way or another, it would have become too earnest — it would have been kind of like ‘Glee.’ And if we were off in the other direction, it would have just been too hard-edge with the comedy.”
For “Cocaine Bear,” for example, the filmmakers entertained multiple versions of the scene, all with varying amounts of gore, in which Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s character meets an unfortunate and bloody fate. Both Handelman and Small emphasize the value of testing their films with audiences to understand what jokes or content cross a line.
“On ‘Bottoms,’ we tested the movie twice,” Small says. “I think it’s really important to have feedback from people who are outside of your bubble of making the movie. We definitely got feedback about certain jokes that weren’t landing or that felt like they went too far, and we adjusted from there.”
Small is hopeful that the success of “Cocaine Bear” and “Bottoms” means that similarly unique films can be made in the future.
“I hope it means that the people who are responsible for greenlighting movies are willing to take more risks on ideas that are original, and just go with their gut a little bit,” she says.
Looking ahead, Brownstone will be focusing on other comedy subgenres, though they can’t share details just yet. Handelman explains that they enjoy producing films that focus on a small niche interest; for example, “Pitch Perfect” delved into the world of college a cappella. At the University of Pennsylvania, where he and Banks met, he says the a cappella community was “a subculture within a subculture.”
“People in a subculture treat their little world as if it’s like the biggest deal in the whole world and they take it super, super seriously and are extraordinarily passionate about their thing — and that’s almost always funny,” he says. “You’re not laughing at them. You’re laughing kind of with them or around them.”
Small shares her dream of working on more horror movies. “Some of my favorite horror movies also make you laugh. And so I would like to make more movies like that,” she says. “I would also like to make a movie that shows older women being really funny. I think the absurdity of life and the absurdity of extreme situations can be a lot of fun.”
Much like Small, Banks also loves horror. Handelman says, “Elizabeth is a massive horror fan, which is a big reason why she responded to ‘Cocaine Bear’ and directed it. Whereas I’m a total horror coward. I can’t deal with horror movies.”
But more than any one particular genre, Small says of Brownstone’s future: “We’re always looking for things that spark joy.”
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