Case in point: Universal’s “Neighbors,” the dirty-minded comedy starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron that debuted to a glittering $49 million domestically this past weekend.
“It’s escapism, and when it works — and ‘Neighbors’ worked — comedies are just a great way for people to escape,” said Nikki Rocco, head of domestic distribution for Universal.
Audiences looking for a laugh helped drive “Neighbors” to the fifth-largest Stateside opening for an R-rated comedy in history. It’s a sterling result that augurs well for a summer that promises to rip the envelope of good taste to shreds thanks to “22 Jump Street,” “Sex Tape,” “Tammy” and a steady stream of other films aimed at adults and teens hungry for gross-out gags.
“Comedies used to stay out of the summer because of all the tentpole movies,” said Richard Brener, president of production at New Line, which will release “Tammy.” “Now they’re tentpole movies themselves.”
These films are banking on a shock-and-guffaw strategy that offers audiences something that can’t be found on broadcast television. In the case of “Neighbors,” it’s the spectacle of Rogen milking Rose Byrne — a sequence that would run afoul of smallscreen censors, save for premium channels such as HBO and Showtime.
“College-age kids, they’ve seen everything,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “If you want to draw the younger audience to the theater, you’ve got to create a conversation, and the things that get people talking are those moments in a movie that really push the limits of the genre.”
It’s a formula that’s worked with previous R-rated fare such as “Ted,” “The Hangover” and “We’re the Millers,” all of which have found gold in the gutter. This summer, thanks to the vagaries of scheduling, audiences’ appetites for this kind of four-letter drenched hilarity will be pushed to the limit. Roughly half a dozen R-rated comedies are scheduled to debut over the next four months, a group that also includes “Let’s Be Cops” with Damon Wayans Jr. and “A Million Ways to Die in the West” from “Ted” and “Family Guy” maestro Seth MacFarlane.
“There’s almost too many of them,” Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst of BoxOffice.com, said. “They’re one on top of the other. This happens every summer with at least one genre.” Amidst the comedy-heavy sked, there are only two animated films directed at younger kids this summer.
Universal’s Rocco argues that the onslaught of R-rated films won’t lead to cannibalization, noting that last summer saw the release of several R-rated comedies such as “The Heat,” “This Is The End,” “We’re the Millers” and “The Hangover Part III” without any attendant bloodbath.
“There’s always room in the marketplace for comedies to co-exist,” she said.
Getting out ahead of the competition certainly worked for “Neighbors.” Prior to that film’s opening, the last major R-rated comedy to hit theaters was last October’s “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.” It also got a nice assist from reviewers, with strong notices earning “Neighbors” a solid 74% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
“There was a lot of pent-up demand,” said Eric Handler, a media and entertainment analyst at MKM Partners. “It was scheduled at the right time, when there wasn’t much competition. You had Seth Rogen to appeal to the male audience and Zac Efron to appeal to females, so it was cast well, and the reviews were positive.”
The jokes may be risky, but the financial model is anything but dicey. Freed from the constraints of constructing far-off galaxies or sending men in tights soaring across cityscapes propelled by pricey special effects, comedies are economical gambles. “Neighbors” cost a mere $18 million to produce, and comedy stars are frequently more willing to forgo higher salaries for a piece of the backend.
“They’re golden when they work, but you don’t spend a lot to make them, so you’re not as worried when they don’t connect,” said Barton Crockett, a media analyst at FBR Capital Markets.
There’s still a place for PG-13 comedies, producers and executives say, but they often work best when matched with a fantastical or magical element, such as “Bedtime Stories” with Adam Sandler or “17 Again” with Efron.
“Comedic actors and writers need to have no boundaries, so things stay fresh,” said Chris Bender, producer of “We’re the Millers” and “American Pie.” “PG-13 is perfect for some things, but it becomes a problem if it leads to people holding back or not being authentic. If it’s a sex comedy that’s not showing things to go for the rating, that’s where it’s dangerous.”
Though it was once considered a truism that comedy doesn’t translate, foreign audiences seem to be increasingly in on the joke. Whether it’s because the stars of these films, such as “Sex Tape’s” Cameron Diaz or Jennifer Aniston in “We’re the Millers,” shine brighter than the B-listers who once headlined such films, or because the movies have become better at emphasizing physical humor over wordy jokes, these films have become more adroit at traversing cultural boundaries. In 2005, “Wedding Crashers” made just over a quarter of its more than $285 million worldwide gross from foreign markets. Yet recent hits such as “We’re the Millers” and “Horrible Bosses” have grossed nearly half their worldwide totals abroad.
To that end, “Neighbors” racked up a solid $33.7 million internationally last weekend, a signal that foreign grosses could be robust.
Success breeds success, and executives say filmmakers have improved the process of cooking up the next hair gel scene in the vein of “There’s Something About Mary” or chest-waxing torments a la “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” It comes down to testing, and lots of it. Brener reports that comedy directors are now doubling or tripling the number of test screenings they host for their pictures in order to fine-tune each punchline and setup.
“The audience has high expectation at this point, and we need to keep surprising them,” he said.