Hot time for the geek clique

As laffers get pricier, Hollywood broadens its search for stars

Will Arnett, a member of the ensemble in Fox’s “Arrested Development,” has never starred in a feature comedy.

So when he and writing partner Michael Schur recently pitched a comedy project to DreamWorks, it was a stretch to think studio execs would go for such a starring vehicle.

Within a half-hour after leaving the studio, Arnett found out DreamWorks had an offer. The only thing that delayed the deal for “The Ambassador” — about a diplomat and his ugly American son — was that other studios were interested, too.

A comedy boom has studios searching for new talent, as untested as it may be. The goal is to replicate the low costs and huge margins of hits like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Wedding Crashers.” They want to mint stars as popular as Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller and the newer lineup of Jack Black, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson — all members of a fraternity of talent currently ruling the comedy business.

On the directing side, the brethren include Judd Apatow, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, Todd Phillips, Jay Roach and Tom Shadyac.

But as star salaries and demands increase, studios are looking to expand the list of bankable performers, seeking comics from a wide array of places including the Internet, the Aspen Comedy Festival, cable and comedy clubs.

In short, every studio wants another Steve Carell. He was a relative unknown when he starred in Universal’s $26 million “Virgin,” which grossed $177 million worldwide and another $100 million in DVD.

Rogue Pictures cast Dan Fogler, coming off Broadway’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” in the ping-pong spy caper “Balls of Fury.” Lionsgate has standup comic Dane Cook in “Employee of the Month,” one of a string of features in which he will play big parts.

Andy Samberg — known for his Internet spoof “Lazy Sunday” on “Saturday Night Live” — is being prepped to star in Paramount’s “Hot Rod.” The studio recently made a deal with the sketch comedy group the Whitest Kids U Know.

“This run has created a lot of opportunities for other funny guys,” says Apatow, who directed “Virgin.”

“Before Steve Carell came along, it was much harder. I remember a week before ‘Old School’ opened, going out with a pitch that had Vince and Will attached, and finding that studios were too scared to take a shot. That would never happen today. I’m making a $33 million Seth Rogen movie.”

The clique’s comedy is not as sophomoric as “American Pie” but not as sophisticated as Woody Allen. USA Today nicknamed them the “Frat Pack”: Not only do they appear in one another’s movies, but they brainstorm, suggest writers and directors and critique one another’s rough cuts. (This may explain why many of the current comedies have such a similar sensibility, and why it’s become such a boys-only club.)

Apatow, for instance, produced Ferrell’s upcoming “Talladega Nights,” which is directed and co-written by Adam McKay. The same team also worked on “Anchorman.”

“Funny people are the opposite of rappers,” says Apatow, from the set of his latest movie, the Rogen comedy “Knocked Up.” “We like each other, we know how hard it is to make good comedies, and we respect anybody who is good at it. We’ve formed these friendships by working together and when somebody asks for help, everybody steps up.”

Apatow, who is Sandler’s former roommate, says that when he finishes a film, he invites “every funny person” to come to a screening.

“You get the most amazing notes and insights on things I might miss,” he says. “We’re all quick to return the favor. The way we figure it, helping the other guy succeed is good for the comedy business.”

Success has driven up costs. Ferrell was guaranteed a $20 million payday for “Talladega” the moment Sony greenlit the project at the pitch stage. Vaughn and Stiller have also hit that mark.

Meanwhile, comedy pitches and specs are selling for healthy, six-figure sums. Sony paid $2 million for Kevin Bisch (“Hitch”) to write a comedy that will pay Ashton Kutcher $10 million to star.

The comedy boom also has had an impact on representation.

UTA’s Nick Stevens and managers Jimmy Miller and Eric Gold wield enormous influence as reps for many members of the comedy clique. In the meantime, CAA, seeking to bolster its comic ranks, recently paid big sums to lure UTA agents Dan Aloni and Jason Heyman, who brought Ferrell, Shadyac and “Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin.

Comedies have been a Hollywood staple since the silent era, but have seen a recent resurgence. As CGI films get increasingly expensive, comedies seem a safer bet, particularly on a smaller budget.

Several studio execs say they will jump at the chance to make a clique vehicle that costs $60 million or less, confident about making money. Oddly, comedies defy conventional wisdom that studios steer clear of mid-priced films (on the theory that they pose greater marketing challenges).

The problems start when a picture goes beyond that.

Fox, for instance, recently cancelled “Used Guys,” which had a $112 million budget to go along with stars Carrey and Stiller and director Roach. Fox balked when it looked like the production would go higher. Roach and Stiller are now looking to set up the project elsewhere.

Even the budget of “Used Guys” was less than many of the superhero and action tentpoles out this summer, but comedies are considered a bigger risk when it comes to overseas grosses (see related story: Int’l comedy no laughing matter).

“Studios are always going to be comforted by having a brand-name star in a comedy,” says Paul Young, who as a partner in the firm of Principato Young manages clients like Arnett. “Studios get nervous when they cross the $100 million line on a project.”

Then there is the matter of control. The comic minds demand a great deal of autonomy, but studios are wary of giving the talent too much rope.

“If you play with them, you do it knowing you are in their sandbox,” says one studio exec. “If you don’t like it, you don’t play. But if you can keep the budget reasonable, the domestic box office track record is strong.”

Sandler enlisted to star in “I Now Pronouce You Chuck and Larry.” When Sandler brought in his own team to join the roster of producers, director Dobkin left the project. When Carrey was unhappy with the results of “Fun With Dick and Jane,” he did what he could to fix the third act. But the resulting reshoots and re-editing put the comedy well behind schedule and drove up its budget.

Members of the clique say they only wield power to control quality. They also feel that they have earned the right to occasionally push the envelope. And studios also can rely on the fraternity to shepherd other performers who can get their start in lower-priced comedies.

“Their execution is more often than not pitch-perfect, and all the new talent is incentivized to work with them,” says U production prexy Donna Langley. “That’s why you see Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman and Seth Rogen getting breaks in supporting roles, and then stepping up to carry movies.”

A big test of comedy’s durability will come next summer, when U releases “Evan Almighty” at a cost of $140 million. The Shadyac-directed pic is a comic tentpole, with elaborate special effects.

The sequel to Carrey’s “Bruce Almighty” became an even bigger gamble when Sony declined to co-finance and Carrey declined to return. Instead, Carell will play a man whom God instructs to build an ark and stock it with animals.

“We looked at the global success of ‘Bruce Almighty,’ the comedy track record of Shadyac, and the importance of Steve Carell and we decided this was a bet we were very comfortable making,” Langley says. “The film has visual effects that go beyond the scope of ‘Bruce Almighty’ and moves this beyond a high-concept comedy and into the realm of event-sized family entertainment.”

As much as studios are speculating on launching another Carell, the territory for grooming comic talent has changed. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV” provided a farm team of comics who graduated into movies like “The Blues Brothers,” “Caddyshack” and “Stripes.”

But those were the days when the broadcast networks ruled the roost, and there was a much better chance that audiences could instantly recognize a John Belushi, Bill Murray or Chevy Chase.

More recently, pics starring former “SNL” regulars Molly Shannon, Chris Kattan and Jimmy Fallon have sputtered at the box office.

Studios still mine “SNL,” but also scour niches like Comedy Central, including “Daily Show” correspondent Rob Corddry and “Colbert Report” headliner Stephen Colbert, as well as the stars of “Reno 911.” The web’s Blue-Collar Comedy has propelled its members into film deals.

“You don’t need stars if you have a good, funny movie with a decent marketing budget behind it,” says attorney Wayne Kazan, an attorney at entertainment-law firm Weissman Wolff. “What these are are accessibly funny movies.”

How long will the boom last?

“People want to be entertained again,” says Phoenix Pictures VP of production David Thwaites, who is producing Warner Bros.’ “License to Wed” with stars John Krasinski, Mandy Moore and Robin Williams. “There is something about comedy that has a broad appeal. There is no sort of split in the audience.”

Rogen, a comedy writer who appeared in “Virgin,” says it is still a bit “weird” that he is suddenly the star of a major movie, U’s “Knocked Up.” He still gets stopped at studio gates, where he has to insist, “I’m the star of Judd’s movie.”

“I really didn’t imagine that would ever happen, to be honest,” he says. “I figured that pudgy, Jewish leading men had gone by the wayside after Albert Brooks. But I guess ’40-Year-Old Virgin’ opens people’s minds.”

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