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Everyone’s a Comedian: Why Hollywood Is Struggling to Bring Comedies Back to Theaters

“Who are we going to trick into making our bats–t movie?”

That’s the question Adele Lim said she faced as she and her partners puzzled over how to get their travel comedy “Joy Ride” made. The answer, the “Crazy Rich Asians” writer said at the movie’s SXSW premiere, where her film got a warm reception, turned out to be Lionsgate. “Joy Ride” — which follows a young Asian woman who travels to China with her friends on a business trip — became a highlight at Lionsgate’s CinemaCon presentation in April.

After years of seeming to fear the funny, Hollywood studios like Lionsgate are making a concerted effort to bring live-action comedies back to theaters. The problem is that comedy now pervades theatrical genres. Superhero movies, romantic stories and horror movies all seem to require a wink and a nudge these days. With so many ways to get a chuckle, will audiences bite for the genuine article?

Laughing together over popcorn

“Joy Ride,” slated for a July release, will join Jennifer Lawrence’s “No Hard Feelings,” the horror spoof “The Blackening” and “Strays,” a talking-animal comedy about abandoned pets voiced by Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx, to name a few R-rated romps. It will coexist alongside comparatively tamer films like Sebastian Maniscalco’s culture-clash comedy “About My Father,” this week’s “Book Club: The Next Chapter” — which scored $550,000 in Thursday previews — and the upcoming Sundance breakout “Theater Camp.”

Not all of these films will be theatrical hits, but the relative abundance of live-action comedies is cause for celebration among fans of farce. Marc Weinstock, a top Paramount distribution executive who had big hits last year with comedies like “Jackass Forever” and “The Lost City” and comedically-flavored tentpoles like “Scream” and “Sonic The Hedgehog 2,” is optimistic.

“Horror movies work because people want to be scared together,” Weinstock told TheWrap. “Comedies work because people want to laugh together too.”

High-concept horror films have been among the safest theatrical genres over the last several years, so the hope is that Hollywood can reintroduce audiences to the idea of contagious cinematic laughter.

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Making a killing

Ten years ago, an indifferently received comedy like “We’re the Millers” could earn $270 million worldwide. Five years ago, the buzzy and acclaimed “Game Night” crossing $100 million globally was considered a near-miracle. In 2023, one might give thanks that Hollywood is releasing any live-action laughers in theaters at all.

As recently as 2016, the likes of Kevin Hart, Melissa McCarthy and Will Ferrell could open a comedy mostly on their names. Comedies, even action-flavored buddy flicks like “The Heat,” “Ride Along” or “Central Intelligence,” were cheaper than the stereotypical tentpole and thus could make it on raw star power. Back then, live-action comedy was the one theatrical genre where original, star-driven studio programmers had a chance in hell against an IP-driven tentpole.

A massive transition in the middle of the past decade saw general audiences shifting from theatrical to streaming for their casual moviegoing. That crippled the theatrical potential for non-event films, like comedies that would play fine on a 50” HDTV. There were exceptions, like Universal’s “Girl’s Trip” in 2017 and Warner Bros.’ “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018. However, audiences quickly began prioritizing franchises and marquee characters over even well-known actors and actresses. They would only show up for comedies for specific reasons, like representational milestones for films that could be sold as events.

The COVID pandemic sent theatrical comedies like “American Pickle,” “The Man From Toronto,” “The Lovebirds” and “My Spy” to streaming services for a quick cash payout. Even as recently as this January, Lionsgate’s Jennifer Lopez-starring action comedy “Shotgun Wedding” debuted not in theaters but on Amazon Prime Video.

The rise of the “funny” franchise

As Seth Rogen — a producer on “Joy Ride” — explained to Total Film in 2020 while promoting “American Pickle,” one big problem is that the MCU qualifies as direct competition for comedies.

“‘Thor: Ragnarok; is a comedy,” he said. “‘Ant-Man’ is a comedy at its core. There are $200 million comedies out there… If you’re going to make a big huge comedy, just know that your competition is, like, Marvel.”

And it’s not just Marvel movies. Audiences desiring a cinematic guffaw can watch self-deprecating cape flicks like “Deadpool”; comedic toons like “Ralph Breaks the Internet”; laughed-filled actioners like “Hobbs & Shaw”; comedic horror films like “Scream VI” and “M3GAN”; or knee-slapping, four-quadrant fantasy adventures like “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Free Guy.” It’s hard for a straight comedy like Toni Collette’s “Mafia Mama” to thrive theatrically when its competition was Nicolas Cage’s horror-comedy “Renfield.”

This summer’s straight-up comedies won’t necessarily be competing with each other, but rather with comedically-seasoned tentpoles like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” “Fast X,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” and “Barbie.” When almost every franchise or genre title serves up laughs, theatrical comedies have to work harder to sell tickets.

Comedies moved to streaming

Meanwhile, Adam Sandler hooked up with Netflix well before it was cool, nabbing big bucks and creative freedom starting with “The Ridiculous Six” in late 2015 to become one of the first theater-to-streaming superstars. McCarthy, Hart and Ferrell eventually followed suit with the likes of “Thunder Force,” “Me Time” and “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”.

Some comedies have succeeded in the streaming era, especially Netflix’s rom-com and YA throwbacks like “Set It Up” or “Do Revenge.” There’s also Judd Apatow’s poorly-reviewed “The Bubble,” which was mostly funny for how badly the Netflix original bombed.

The sketch show-to-movie star pipeline just doesn’t flow like it used to. Andy Samberg struck out with “Hot Rod” and “Popstar” but found success on Fox’s acclaimed sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Just this week, Universal announced that an untitled treasure hunt comedy starring a trio of “Saturday Night Live” cast members — Ben Marshall, John Higgins and Martin Herlihy who are collectively known as Please Don’t Destroy — would debut not in theaters as planned but on Peacock. And lately, Jason Segal and Jason Sudeikis have been making their names not in theaters but on Apple TV+’s “Shrinking” and “Ted Lasso” respectively.

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Movie stars are costly, but so is skimping on talent

Leads with name recognition remain crucial for comedies. Paramount’s $70 million “The Lost City” only crossed $100 million domestically because Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum were verifiable stars.

That means competing with streaming-inflated star salaries. Whatever Chris Evans and Ana De Armas got paid for Apple’s action comedy “Ghosted,” it’s almost certainly a lot more than they would have received had the film been made through the theatrical pipeline. Upstart streamers have a particular reputation for overpaying for talent as a show of force against their conventional Hollywood competition.

The other problem is that comedy movie stars are mostly aging out or moving on, so producers must line up dramatic actors like Jennifer Lawrence and Channing Tatum who can also do comedy.

The good news is that there is absolutely potential for younger thespian heartthrobs like Austin Butler, Zendaya or Timothée Chalamet to cut loose outside the confines of an awards-season play or a franchise flick. There’s precedent for comic roles making a career: Would Tom Cruise be a star without the comedy chops he displayed in “Risky Business” and “Cocktail”?

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Why box office still matters

Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s “Theater Camp” will debut theatrically on July 14, right alongside Greta Gerwig’s presumably comedic “Barbie” and Chris Nolan’s presumably serious “Oppenheimer.” Searchlight paid $10 million for the Sundance crowd-pleaser, and its success or failure will be seen as a bellwether for whether Hollywood can still turn festival darlings into theatrical hits.

And that theatrical performance matters more now because of the growing consensus that box office performance is a predictor of streaming interest. That interest in ancillary revenue streams is a factor in pushing more comedies into theaters.

And box office still matters. Underperforming theatricals like Universal’s “Bros” or Lionsgate’s “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” couldn’t get a last laugh through video-on-demand sales, after all. If “Theater Camp,” “No Hard Feelings,” “Joy Ride,” “Book Club: The Next Chapter” and “Strays” pull in big audiences, maybe comedies won’t be Hollywood punch lines.

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