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.
One of the key pioneers of this kind of marketing seems to have been Neighbors, whose “FRAT VS. FAMILY” campaign helped carry the film to a $270 million worldwide gross for Universal in 2014 — a massive success for any movie, but especially an R-rated comedy with an $18 million budget. You can see echoes of the Neighbors campaign in many of the studio comedies that came after it, with increasingly diminishing returns. The “dad vs. stepdad” campaign of Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg’s Daddy’s Home, in 2015 (Wahlberg also has Instant Family coming out next month, which looks like almost the same movie). Ice Cube and Charlie Day’s Fist Fight, in which the conflict was not only the campaign, but also the title. Earlier this year we had Tag, which is, you guessed it, a movie about adults playing tag. The title is the premise is the concept is the conflict is the poster.
“High concept has always been a part of getting comedies made, but I think it has become louder lately because of the death of movie stars,” says Gene Stupnitsky, co-writer of Bad Teacher and co-creator of Stephen Merchant’s Hello Ladies. “People simply do not believe in them anymore as a reliable thing, especially in comedy, which used to be an actor driven genre.”
In an era when brand is king, the most obvious solution, it seems, is to become a brand. For comedies that aren’t a sequel to Super Troopers or a National Lampoon’s Vacation spinoff, that means trying to feel like a franchise even before you are one. Bad Moms sounded like a potential cinematic universe even before it became a surprise hit (thus spawning A Bad Moms Christmas). And, of course, Bad Moms contained echoes of Bad Teacher, while Girls Trip was easily understood as a female Hangover/African-American Bridesmaids. The gender swap has become another easy branding move.
“[Studio comedies] have a relatively fixed below the line cost where you need a certain number — in a tax break location — to simply make something that has the scope and scale to be released as a studio comedy. Examples of this are Bad Moms, Girls Trip, Blockers, and certainly the movie I’m about to go off and direct, Good Boys,” Stupnitsky says. “The thinking is that if movie stars aren’t going to be valuable, let’s lean into concept harder and make movies with smaller stars that are less risk and have a similar ROI at this point. In a way, superhero material has led the way with valuing properties and concepts over actors.”
Last year, Matt Spicer directed and co-wrote Ingrid Goes West, starring Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen, for which he won an independent spirit award. It was a typically moderate-grossing, limited release comedy that made lots of critics’ best-of lists (mine included), that the larger public mostly didn’t hear about until it hit streaming.
“I feel like Ingrid probably could have been made in the studio system when I first started, but it doesn’t seem like that would be feasible [in the current environment]. And I know because I tried to do it,” Spicer says.
“It seems like it would be harder to do a movie like Forgetting Sarah Marshall at a studio right now. Just because it’s hard to tell from just looking at the title what the movie is about, or what the poster should look like.”
“Even in the studio comedy space, there’s this idea of everything has to be a franchise. For me being on both sides of it, having produced and written and directed and worked in the studio world versus worked in the indie world, I understand at this current moment why things are trending in that direction. Because you have two seconds to grab someone’s attention, if that. It’s like being in a restaurant where everybody’s shouting over the top of each other. And so it does feel like you have to compress your idea into this little simple thing or else people are just going ignore it.”
Have we reached a tipping point? Cinema’s Death Magnetic moment? Commercially, probably not. As Night School‘s example attests, there’s still money to be made, even in an atmosphere of diminishing returns, and new faces can occasionally compensate for stale concepts. But just as people with relentlessly consistent personal brands start to get obnoxious, the same is true of movies. There’s only so much you can shout before people start ignoring you.
Now more than ever, movies have to feel like an event if they’re going to compete with all the reasons not to leave the house. An easily explained concept may simplify the marketing campaign, but a movie that feels like you could predict every plot point just from the poster is pretty much the opposite of an event. At best it’s an okay way to pass the time.
“With comedy, people used to think, ‘Oh you want to be in the theater laughing with other people,'” Fritz says. “But that’s proving to be not so true anymore. Comedies are struggling at the box office, and people are pretty happy to watch comedies at home.”