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Laughs are the ultimate f/x

Star & concept drive success of features

“To sum it up, comedy is king,” says an emphatic Tom Sherak.

The respected marketing and distribution maven — and Revolution Studios partner — should know as well as anyone. His shingle recently laughed its way to the bank with the Wayans brothers’ “White Girls” and “Little Man” and the Columbia/Revolution co-production “Click.”

The bad buzz generated recently by the scuttling of several big-budget projects aside, comedy is still one of the most reliable of film genres because the paradigm for success has always been relatively simple: Have a strong concept, don’t spend a lot of money and pack in enough laughs to satisfy the aud.

Unlike other genres, comedies don’t have to work 100%. “You just have to make sure you don’t have a lot of dead space,” says Jeff Tremaine, writer-director of the popular “Jackass” movies. “People are very forgiving with comedies,” agrees Andrew Panay, partner in Tapestry Films and producer of “Wedding Crashers” and “Employee of the Month.” “They just want to laugh a lot, and if you maybe throw in a bit of heart, they leave the theater very satisfied.”

The concept may be the star, but a byproduct of good comedy has been to create sometimes enduring icons. Clearly, however, it was the vehicle(s) that turned Bill Murray, Robin Williams — and more recently, Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler — into box office names and not vice versa.

A comedy star adds to the budget, but it is often money well spent, Sherak says, especially if the star has developed a loyal following for a particular kind of comedy. And provided the star is where most of your money goes. No one has ever walked away from a comedy yukking it up over production values.

“If you’re going to spend the money,” says Tremaine, “spend it on someone funny like a Bill Murray. When the audience plugs into a character, it takes less time to set everything up. As far as production values go, it’s the filmmakers who care about that. I don’t think the audience does.”

Cheap laughs

In action movies, no matter how big the star, the projects must continually up the ante (the “Die Hard” and “Mission: Impossible” series), providing more impressive and costly CG (or real) explosions. But Stiller and Vince Vaughan can go totally low-tech in a modestly budgeted comedy like “DodgeBall” and chortle their way to $100 million.

The good news is that the state of feature comedy is as robust today as ever. For well under $50 million, and even under $20 million, solid profits can be amassed by films as diverse as “Wedding Crashers,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Borat,” the two (to date) “Jackass” movies and even the recent “Employee of the Month.”

The theatrical take is only a slice of the pie as homevideo and cable can outstrip it, transforming some comedies into lucrative perennials.

According to Panay, even his pics that performed modestly at the box office, like National Lampoon’s “Van Wilder,” have been “giant” on DVD and in cable/syndication — so much so that it spawned theatrical sequel “Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj” starring Kal Penn (“Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”), due for release in December.

It follows in the footsteps of other relatively modest box office performers like “Friday” and the first “Austin Powers,” whose popularity mushroomed in the ancillary markets, spawning successful franchises.

But of late, that once rare creature, the high-budget comedy, has been rearing its ugly head all too frequently.

Scuttlebutt

For example, Paramount and Fox found themselves in the respective positions of having to scuttle — or at best postpone — “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” (helmed by Tim Burton and starring Carrey) and “Used Guys” (directed by Jay Roach and starring Carrey and Stiller), because their budgets had climbed above $100 million.

Another high-profile comedy, Universal’s “Evan Almighty” — a sequel to Carrey’s “Bruce Almighty,” (worldwide gross of almost $480 million), only this time starring Steve Carell — could cost upward of $150 million, giving it the unenviable onus of being the most expensive comedy ever made.

The cost overruns are being blamed on a ballooning effects budget, an all too common problem with action spectacles, but thus far not for slapstickery.

The fly in the ointment for the comedy genre has always been its comparable weakness in overseas. As Sherak notes, 60% of film revenue now emanates from offshore territories, yet comedies rarely follow that model. Hefty budgets are easier to justify when it comes to action because foreign grosses often dwarf the U.S. take. It’s safer to count largely on the domestic revenue stream to recoup and show a profit for most comedies.

Conversely, some of Carrey’s efforts, like “Bruce Almighty,” have broken through internationally. And this year, Sandler’s “Click” is proving to be his first comedy to register an anticipated $100 million overseas, a level he achieves with predictable regularity in the U.S.

Sherak credits that with a CG-propelled concept that was as universal as the film’s universal remote control device gone haywire. Yet, the Revolution monster hit “Anger Management,” with Sandler and Jack Nicholson, had little traction overseas.

The situation overall may be improving. Family comedies, says Panay, can touch a common nerve and make successful inroads abroad. Even “Employee of the Month,” which is set in a Costco-like warehouse store, might find appeal, he says, because superstores are not exclusive to the U.S. anymore. Still, he contends, it’s best to “keep your budget modest; then your downside is pretty well covered.”

Besides, throwing money at comedy doesn’t always make it funnier and can often render it top heavy. It’s never a good thing to have the words “comedy” and “heavy” in the same sentence.

“The funniest things we did in the ‘Jackass’ movies were the cheapest ones,” Tremaine says. “The simpler, the more homemade the ideas, the more the audience connected.”

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