Debuting a comedy in the summer is no laughing matter.
Competition to attract moviegoers looking to have their funny bone tickled has never been fiercer, producers and analysts say. Between May and September, 13 wide-release laughers are slated to open, among them such hotly anticipated titles as “Ted 2”; “Spy,” with Melissa McCarthy as an unlikely secret agent; and “Trainwreck,” with Amy Schumer as a monogamy-avoiding woman. Just last week, Relativity Studios yanked gymnastics satire “The Bronze” from July and repositioned it in October, fearing it would be cannibalized in the seasonal glut.
“It’s an era of compelling comedies,” said Paul Brooks, the producer of the summer smash “Pitch Perfect 2.” “The bar has been raised so high in recent years that the films that pass it have a better chance of reaching a wider audience, so there are more getting released in summer.”
Going back to the time of “Animal House” and “Ghostbusters,” summer comedies have been something of a tradition, but recent successes such as “The Hangover,” “Neighbors” and “We’re the Millers” have encouraged studios to see the warmer months as a good time to mine laughs. Of course, not every gamble pays off. “Hot Pursuit,” a buddy comedy with Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara, was a victim of poor reviews, grossing a measly $30.7 million, and while “Entourage” has a fanbase from its HBO days, pre-release tracking looks weak.
With the exception of a few outliers like “Ted,” comedies don’t always play as well overseas as spectacle-heavy event pictures like “Jurassic World” or “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Yet they cost a quarter or a third of what studios spend on those projects, so they don’t need to cross cultural boundaries to make a profit. “People don’t just want to see superhero movies,” said “Spy” producer Jenno Topping. “Our feeling is that if the film plays well, why not release it during the time when attendance is highest?”
“Spy’s” great selling point is McCarthy, who has scored with such past summer hits as “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat.” But star power alone isn’t enough to sell a movie. Just as tentpole releases have increasingly been franchise driven, many of the major summer comedies such as “Vacation,” “Ted 2” and “Pitch Perfect 2” are sequels and reboots. In the case of “Spy” and “Trainwreck,” which stars a relative newcomer to film in Schumer, the strategy has been to screen them early and often, generating positive word-of-mouth with previews at SXSW and the exhibition industry confab CinemaCon.
Since most summer comedies are R-rated, they serve as cost-effective counterprogramming to family-friendly tentpoles.
“A dirty joke doesn’t cost any more than a clean joke,” said Bruce Nash, founder of the box office tracking site the Numbers. Topping said comedies for adults tend to play better than those with PG or PG-13 ratings. Still, the sheer number of films looking to slaughter sacred cows and string together four-letter words threaten to eventually exhaust audiences.
“Every other week, there’s an R-rated comedy coming out, and that does seem like too much for the market to bear,” Nash said.