A few weeks back, Night School made headlines by earning 2018’s highest opening weekend for a comedy, with $27.2 million domestically (early estimates had it at $28 million), presumably largely on the backs of its stars Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish. As a movie it’s… fine, your typical airplane movie where if you don’t expect much you won’t be too disappointed, with a few laugh-out-loud moments and some solid side performances (notably from Romany Malco and Al Madrigal).
Conceptually it’s about what we’ve come to expect from studio comedies lately — a brutally literal title that essentially writes the script and designs the posters. Commercially it did well (still only the 25th best opening of the year), but expectations are low for studio comedies these days. You have to wonder if low expectations are leading to flat concepts, or vice versa. It seems we’ve traded the hope of a high ceiling (the highest you could hope your movie earning) for the guarantee of an acceptable floor (the worst-case scenario earnings prediction). Everything has gotten “compressed.”
Compression is a more easily understood concept as applied to music, where “dynamic range” is something that can be quantified and measured — the difference between the loudest and softest sounds. As applied to comedy it’s certainly a more artful term, but that’s what seems to be happening.
Concepts are shrinking. Night School. Girls Trip. Book Club. Game Night. Fist Fight. Tag. The title is the poster is the plot is the marketing campaign. Why bother seeing it? You can even do a Fuddruckers/Buttf*ckers Idiocracy-style montage with some of them to illustrate the gradual dumbing. We go from The Hangover, which is a fairly illustrative title, but still describes a feeling; to Bridesmaids, two years later, which now literally describes the main characters; to Girls Trip, six years after that, which now describes the entire plot. We’ve compensated with better representation (comedies thankfully aren’t just about white dudes anymore), but concepts have gotten monolithic.
In music, there was a name for this phenomenon: The Loudness War, where audio engineers tried to compress the dynamic range of their recordings to an increasingly extreme degree so that their records would really “pop,” and be heard over the din. Hyper-compressed songs sound “louder.” Articles complaining about the loss of dynamic range were everywhere. It got to the point where one Metallica album, 2008’s Death Magnetic, was so compressed that it caused digital clipping, and people sought out the Rockband videogame version of the recording to restore some of the original range.
With music, the advent of the iPod was partly to blame, with people listening to music on smaller and smaller speakers. In movies, the business is currently in the midst of an era where franchise movies and “branded content” dominate the market, making up the vast majority of movies made and the money made from those movies. In 2018, franchise movies make up eight out of the current top 10. Out of this year’s top 50 highest grossing movies, comedies accounted for just seven (and the biggest of them, Crazy Rich Asians, is more lifestyle porn than laughs). Ten years ago, the number was more than double that, with 15 comedies in the top 50.
“Until the past few years, companies used to think that something like 10 percent was a healthy profit margin for the movie business,” says The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Fritz, whose 2018 book The Fight For The Future Of Movies, traces the origins of the franchise era. “The other thing they thought was it was never going to be stable. Disney has completely upended that. Disney [who own Star Wars and Marvel] is making profits in its film studio alone with a margin of close to 30 percent recently. They’ve been doing that consistently. Nobody thought that was possible before, and of course every other studio is looking at it and they, and more importantly, their bosses at the parent corporations, are saying, ‘Why can’t we do that?’”
“Franchise movies” are seen as safer bets, and are an easy way to project stable, regularly scheduled profits for years to come — just the way investors like. Moviegoers just want one good movie to get them off their couches and into theaters, but a franchise comes with a built-in business plan. And so a movie pitch has become not just a movie pitch, but a sort of pilot episode for a future franchise. So where does that leave wide release comedies?
Mostly it leaves them, like those audio engineers, in a place where it feels like they need to shout to be heard. And you can’t get too complicated when you’re shouting.