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Making Comedy on a Budget Pays Off for Studios, Networks

There’s no sure bet in any film or TV genre, but whenever the big-budget action films or franchise dramas stumble, it’s always comedy that comes to the rescue.

Whether it’s “Sausage Party” on the big screen or the recently renewed “Atlanta” and “Better Things” on FX, comedy can be a reliable performer with high returns on relatively small budgets.

“A smaller budget is one of the things that makes the risk more reasonable to the studios,” says “Sausage Party” co-writer and actor Seth Rogen.

When studios spend a lot of money, they like to see that investment backed up by a proven track record — which has led to a glut of reboots and questionable adaptations.

Rogen says comedies with original ideas often draw more interest from audiences: “With comedy, people want originality.”

This past summer Rogen’s irreverent animation send-up “Sausage Party” ($97 million domestically as of mid-October, per Box Office Mojo) outperformed his more straightforward sequel, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” ($55 million).

“The riskier, more original thing paid off in every way,” Rogen acknowledges.

Originality is also a key to comedies on HBO, according to Amy Gravitt, executive vice president, HBO programming.

“It’s important for our shows to start a new conversation by giving a fresh voice an opportunity to tell his or her story or by exploring a world that we haven’t seen before,” she says. “The decision to greenlight ‘Insecure’ was an easy one as Issa Rae’s voice jumped off of the page in the pilot script.”
Comedy Central president Kent Alterman says the genre is more talent-driven.

“The talent matters more than whatever kind of equity is perceived to exist in pre-existing intellectual property,” he says. “Some sort of mining of intellectual property that has equity can lead to material that feels more derivative. Comedy, when it’s done well, feels very original and I think people respond to that.”

IFC president and general manager Jennifer Caserta says talent is key to her network’s comedy approach, too. IFC’s brand is now established enough that multi-hyphenates bring ideas to the network, whether it’s Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen’s collaboration “Documentary Now!” or the stalwart “Portlandia” from Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, and director Jonathan Krisel.

“If you look at the quality of ‘Documentary Now’ and how it replicates the source material with such perfection, not many people can do that,” Caserta says. “You have to be inventive because in replicating that authenticity you could spend far beyond your budget.”

While some comedies can cost $2 million or more per episode, basic cable comedies often come in around $1 million per half-hour. Episode orders are usually smaller – around 10 episodes – so there’s not the need for as large of a writers’ room.

“We’re really happy with how our comedies look and are executed,” says Nick Grad, president of original programming, FX Networks and FX Productions. “Our main philosophy is, the less expensive the show can be, the more time it has to find its audience, whereas if you make a really big bet early on, you’ve got to start paying dividends right out of the gate.”

Grad notes how FX’s “Archer” and “Louie” grew in popularity and ratings over time. “For the most part I’m finding comedy works on a word-of-mouth basis and takes a little time for them to be proselytized and catch on,” he says. “It gives them a chance to survive based pretty much solely on how excellent they are creatively.”

HBO’s Gravitt says smaller budgets allow showrunners more room to experiment with structure. “In this season of ‘High Maintenance,’ there’s an entire episode told from a heartbroken dog’s point of view,” she says. “For much of the episode you don’t see the actors’ faces; I haven’t been that engaged in a love story in quite some time.”

Veteran comedy director Barnet Kellman, who is on the faculty in the comedy program at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, says most of the time comedy doesn’t want to be big or full of spectacle.

“In comedy, big is often bloated,” he says. “Comedy involves stuffing a lot of human interaction into a tight space — like the Marx Brothers’ stateroom, like an unruly family at a wedding party. … Comedy is a small vessel tightly packed with messy human behavior. Small vessels are cheaper than big ones and they are often funnier.”

While tighter budgets can be a strain on lavish dramas, they can pay unexpected dividends on comedic projects.

“Sometimes the big, extravagant locations aren’t a friend to comedy,” Gravitt says. “In both ‘Silicon Valley’ and ‘Insecure,’ we’ve had scenes where we made location changes that upped the tension and the comedy by forcing the characters into tighter quarters.  Also, going way back, we would not have Jemaine Clement’s brilliant Bowie performance in ‘Flight of the Conchords’ if the budget had allowed us to fly their casting choice in from the U.K.”

Adam McKay, co-founder of Gary Sanchez Productions with Will Ferrell, says big-budget action films open the door to more modestly budgeted big-screen comedies.

“The bigger the action tent pole movies get with budgets north of $200 [million]-250 million, the more and more important it is for studios to produce low budget, high-talent movies,” McKay says. “We’re seeing this a lot with horror films and more and more with comedies.”

Gary Sanchez’s 2014 Melissa McCarthy vehicle “Tammy” was produced for $19 million and made more than $100 million worldwide.

“Our dream is to see a studio get behind a $5 million-$7 million comedy and pay for advertising like it’s a $30 million comedy, but we fully understand that it takes a lot of guts to go to your corporate board at the end of the year and explain that kind of payout,” McKay says. “However, that’s clearly the direction comedy is pointed. At a certain point a studio has to ask, ‘Would we rather spend $240 million on what could be a giant bomb or spend $55 million on “Daddy’s Home” with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg and get a very solid return?’”

“Daddy’s Home,” released in December 2015, grossed $240 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.
Adam Fogelson, chairman of the motion picture group at STX Entertainment, says his company’s summer film “Bad Moms” became a hit, grossing $113 million domestically on a $20 million budget, not only because it was outrageous but also because it was emotionally resonant.

“‘Bad Moms’ was not just crazy for the sake of crazy, a ‘women-gone-wild’ comedy,” Fogelson says. “At its core it was dealing with a very real, sometimes very challenging and frequently very emotional subject matter of moms feeling overworked, overstressed, over-judged, and underappreciated.

“That might not necessarily seem like the stuff of great comedy but when handled deftly by a team that gave as much attention and focus to the emotional truths of the story as the comic beats that would make people laugh, that was a critical component to the success of the film and something we look for in every comedy we’re working on.”

Rogen’s producing partner, Evan Goldberg, says the pair know they have a worthwhile idea when they can’t forget about it.

“If it’s something we just keep talking about — ‘This Is the End,’ ‘Pineapple Express’ — these were ideas we just couldn’t stop thinking about,” he says. “If it just stays in our mental space long enough, we know it’s something we care about a lot and should do.”

With “Sausage Party,” Rogen and Goldberg found that had to both spoof the Pixar films they love and embrace Pixar’s style of storytelling.

“We talk a lot about the phrase, ‘having our cake and eating it too,’” Rogen says. “When we can both participate in and comment on that genre simultaneously, that’s really our goal.”

That is perhaps easier said than done.

“All the time we were making ‘Sausage Party’ the question kept coming up, ‘Can we at once make something that’s making fun of Pixar movies and also at the same time be a Pixar movie?’” Rogen says.

It took the team time to find the right balance.

“We picked the most difficult genre to try to participate in because we hold Pixar in the highest regard,” Goldberg says. “It literally wasn’t until a few years into the process that we really faced the hard truth that this has to be a movie that functions intelligently as well as comedically because that is the standard it will be held against.”

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