Twenty years ago, the highest-grossing movie of the summer wasn’t a budget-busting superhero movie, an explosion-driven sequel, a remake, a reboot, or (God help us) the fourth in a series of toy-based films about cars that turn into robots. The highest-grossing movie of the summer — of the year, in fact — was a mid-budget comedy/drama called Forrest Gump, which ended up winning six Oscars and grossing an astonishing $677 million worldwide, on a $55 million budget. Studios made mid-level movies like Gump back then (and not just in Oscar season); the following year, Universal’s Waterworld would make headlines and prompt giggles of derision when its budget zipped past $100 million. Such a thing was unheard of. Now, it’s impossible to imagine a major studio summer movie costing less than $100 million — unless, of course, it’s a film counter-programmed to make people laugh.
The Wrap’s Lucas Shaw pinpointed the trend, noting that, in contrast to the rising cost of tentpole blockbusters, the cost of studio comedies has actually dropped precipitously over the past five years, from an average budget of $74.1 million in 2010 to $33.8 million this summer. (Only one summer studio comedy, 22 Jump Street, cost over $50 million to make.) The average gross for this summer’s comedies thus far is $151 million. That’s a pretty tidy profit for a picture like Neighbors, which has already grossed $247 million worldwide off an $18 million budget, or Ride Along, which was made for $25 million and took in $153 million worldwide, or even Tammy, whose weak opening weekend wasn’t up to star Melissa McCarthy’s usual standards — but all of that may not matter, since it only had a $20 million production budget to recoup. (Maybe that’s why they went so light on the promotion.)
It’s a trend with a long history (Mae West’s personality-driven comedies famously helped save Paramount back in the 1930s), and one that’s crept into the yearly box office tallies without much notice. Last year’s 15th and 16th highest-grossing movies were The Heat and We’re the Millers, costing (respectively) $43 million and $37 million, and bringing in $229 million and $269 million. The latter film’s run was particularly impressive — released in the doldrums of August, it never took the top slot at the box office, but it stayed in the top ten for eight weeks (all but unheard of in this “blockbuster of the week” climate). Its draw was a funny concept and a re-teaming of the stars of Horrible Bosses, another surprise success two summers earlier, grossing $209 million worldwide on a $37 million budget.
I can give you more numbers like this, but you get the point. What it means is, if not a shift in the rules, than an acknowledgment that there is a different set of rules for mainstream comedies. Serious filmmakers have despaired for years that the middle ground between low-budget indies and mega-budget blockbusters, which produced so many great, thoughtful, well-made, star-driven dramas and mysteries and the like, has become rarefied air. “I can’t afford to make a movie the way they want me to do it,” John Waters noted recently. “Nobody wants any movie that can’t play in China. Nobody wants any movie that has to have any subtitles. They just want explosions. They want $100 million movies that are tentpole movies. The worst thing they want… is a comedy based on wit. And if I was doing something, that’s what I’d try to do.”
In other words, everything either has to cost less than $5 million or more than $200 million, in pursuit of what Alec Baldwin memorably dubbed “the risk-free movie business.” And here’s where these comedy hits come in: they’re comparatively low-budget, but still risk-free. You see, they depend on movie stars, and contrary to certain inexplicable Variety editorials, there are still plenty of movie stars in the world of comedy. There is the aforementioned Ms. McCarthy; there is Seth Rogen, who starred in and produced two $100 million-grossing studio comedies in less than a year; there’s Kevin Hart, who’s fronted three hugely profitable movies this calendar year alone.
And there’s more to come: next month’s Let’s Be Cops (starring New Girl’s Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr.), Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview in October, Horrible Bosses 2 and Dumb and Dumber To in November — all reasonably budgeted and thus, quite possibly, profitable. Let’s not go crazy here; a half-assed, poorly scripted personality piece like Tammy isn’t going to cure the bad-summer-movie blues, and the upcoming comedy slate probably won’t make up for the huge drops in annual box office that have been widely (sometimes gleefully) reported as of late.
But these films represent an idea that might help get Hollywood off the crack pipe: that you don’t have to spend $200 million (and spend it conspicuously, with skull-crushing effects and endless explosions) to make $200 million. If you put all your eggs in a blockbuster basket, yes, you might make Transformers money; you also might make R.I.P.D. money. Placing smaller, safer bets on low- to mid-budget pictures — comedies, dramas, genre films — can pay off handsomely, and if it doesn’t, hey, no big loss. Even better, such small investments would lean on out-of-the-box concepts like “storytelling” and “performance,” rather than how awesome that dinosaur robot is, bro.