No matter the year, no matter what else is released in theaters, one of the universal truths about movies is that audiences want to be entertained. And usually the best way to ensure said entertainment is to make them laugh. Comedy may not be the highest form of art, but it certainly knows how to draw a crowd.
So why is it that, while Universal's Identity Thief is the second highest-grossing film of 2013, Warner Bros' The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is the latest among a bevy of comedic disappointments in the last four months?
There are several problems with modern comedies that keep them from ensuring hit status. The first problem?
TIMES HAVE CHANGED
Going back as far as the silent era, comedy greats like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplain, though now lauded as geniuses, during their time were deemed clowns and nothing more. Even during the 1930's and 40's, when the screwball comedies like Pillow Talk and The Philadelphia Story thrived, were still deemed as films made for the lowest common denominator by some critics of the period.
Even today, comedies, for the most part, are still deemed as cheap entertainment, good for a chuckle and nothing more. And, to be honest, there's nothing wrong with that. A good laugh is cathartic and provides a temporary escape from reality. Because of this, comedy has had to evolve with the times. What it has now evolved into in our generation, though, have many debating about what's funny or not.
In 1994, Jim Carrey's big breakthrough film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective came out, ushering in a new wave of slapstick silliness, causing many to believe Carrey as a modern day Jerry Lewis. In 1997, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's South Park debuted on Comedy Central -- which was the same year There's Something About Mary hit the big screen, causing the standards of taste in comedy to be re-examined.
After films like American Pie and Van Wilder have pushed the envelope and crossed the line, while films like Tommy Boy and Dumb and Dumber have exhausted every pratfall and fart joke, what once was taboo is now standard. So, when comedies try to use primarily dialogue-based comedy, such as 2003's Down With Love ($20.3 million) and 2006's Stranger Than Fiction ($40.7 million), they get buried in the mix for more physical humor fare or films that rely on nudity and foul language.
The other main problem?
THERE'S NOTHING NEW
As comedy evolves, audiences can become bored with the status quo quickly. It only takes a few years for something that seemed fresh at first to become stale. Even with sequels to a popular movies, audiences will often have a "seen it" attitude, causing a comedy to fail at the box office when being released a couple years before would have almost ensured it to succeed.
The Hangover was a runaway smash with $277.3 million, which, naturally, would spawn a sequel. However, The Hangover Part II only grossed $254.5 million, and comparable titles Project X ($54.7 million), Due Date ($100.5 million), and 21 and Over ($21.9 million to date) performed well under expectations. Is it any surprise then that this past weekend's Burt Wonderstone failed to make even a fraction of comparably-titled Blades of Glory's $33 million opening?
Universal's American Pie series is another prime example of this. The first installment, released in 1999, made a then-stellar $102.6 million, and American Pie 2 even made more with $145.1 million in 2001. However, the trend started to decline in 2003 with American Wedding ($104.6 million), and took a complete dive with fourth installment American Reunion ($57 million) last year.
Universal Pictures clearly has knowledge of this principle, seeing that they've managed to release some of the most original comedies in the last decade.
Starting with 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin ($109.4 million), Universal gave writer/director Judd Apatow a chance to make a stellar debut, allowing Apatow to repeat his success in 2007 with Knocked Up ($148.8 million), and even with Superbad ($121.5 million), which Apatow produced for Sony the same year. Granted, Apatow wasn't able to repeat that success with 2009's Funny People ($51.9 million) or with last year's This Is 40 ($67.5 million) behind the director's chair, but continues to produce several modest hits for the company.
Universal struck comedy gold with Apatow again, however, in 2011 with Bridesmaids, showing a strong female cast can bring the funny just as much as a primarily male cast can, earning a huge $169.1 million. And let's not forget about last year's runaway hit Ted, Seth MacFarlane's brainchild that earned an unpredictable $218.8 million, which beat Disney/Pixar's Brave in its second weekend. When you give your audience something unique, odds are they'll flock to that before going to something that seems a bit tired in theme.
Now, keep in mind this isn't always the case. Scott Pilgrim vs The World had an early game over in 2010 with $31.5 million, while the Simon Pegg-penned alien buddy comedy Paul phoned home with a mere $37.4 million (ironically, both from Universal Pictures). Now keep in mind the advertising campaigns for both films left a lot to be desired, and these are two extreme cases against the principle. Another argument can be made for last January's Movie 43, which only grossed a measly $8.8 million domestically, but this was a bizarre experiment with no clear plot outlined in the aggressive advertising campaign, and, therefore, cannot be considered an example of a unique film failing to find an audience.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE FUTURE?
Given what we've covered here, while there are still many comedies set for release in 2013, only a handful of them seem like they'll hold up against the odds and succeed above the rest. Whether they're unique enough to stand out, or likely to succeed based on track record, here are the comedies most likely to succeed:
While the second installment saw a small dip from the first, The Hangover Part III is still almost guaranteed to make a gross north of $200 million. Given this is the final installment in this highly successful franchise, fans of the series will certainly come out to see how it all ends, especially since it promises the return of many cast members absent from the first sequel, as well as a few new additions to the cast, like John Goodman and Melissa McCarthy.
Speaking of Melissa McCarthy, 20 Century Fox's The Heat brings the rising star with Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock in a female cop buddy action comedy. Think an R-rated Cagney and Lacey. While cop buddy comedies are not rare by any stretch of the imagination, Bridesmaids proved that female leads can do comedy just as well as male leads, and, given McCarthy helped Identity Thief become a smash hit, it's only logical this film would land over $100 million at least by the end of its run.
Finally, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's feature directorial debut This Is The End, featuring actors like Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Rogen himself playing caricatures of themselves as they face the Biblical apocalypse. Sure, the film will have comparison's to Simon Pegg's own apocalyptic comedy The World's End, but Pegg's other two movies, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, were more cult hits than certified ones. So, Rogen and Goldberg's film should have a chance at hitting some comedy gold based on cast and a unique approach.