How do you like your comedies? Gross-out? Witty? Physical? Well however you like them, I hope you like ’em cheaply produced, because that’s how you’re going to get them for the foreseeable future, according to a report in The Los Angeles Times. Ben Fritz writes that several factors — most notably the decline in DVD sales and comedies’ relative unpopularity overseas — have forced Hollywood to drastically scale back on their budgets. The days of $50 million dollar plus budgets for comedies may be coming to an end, replaced by more films like “Bad Teacher,” which was made, according to the Times, for just $19 million, including $1 million for star Cameron Diaz (as opposed to her $8 million fee for last year’s “Knight and Day”).
My first reaction is “Well, duh.” Why in the world do you need $50 million to make a comedy anyway? You don’t. Comedy is one of those rare cinematic commodities that can’t be improved by throwing money at it. If your giant transforming robots don’t look so hot, you can pay for better special effects. Other than paying for a better screenwriter, how else can you throw money after comedy? You can’t.
But there’s a bigger problem here, one that’s been on my mind since I wrote that piece about movie stars last week and spent a lot of time looking at the recent international grosses, and that’s this idea that a lot of American comedies don’t gross well overseas. And since foreign box office is becoming more and more important, that has made comedies less and less desirable for studios. As a test case, let’s look at some recent films by Will Ferrell and compare their American and foreign grosses. I’m excluding teeny tiny movies like “Everything Must Go,” just because those are a different story altogether. All numbers come from Box Office Mojo (where else?):
AMERICAN BOX OFFICE TOTAL: $148.4 million
FOREIGN BOX OFFICE TOTAL: $173.4 million
“The Other Guys” (2010)
AMERICAN BOX OFFICE TOTAL: $119.2 million
FOREIGN BOX OFFICE TOTAL: $51.2 million
“Land of the Lost” (2009)
AMERICAN BOX OFFICE TOTAL: $49.4 million
FOREIGN BOX OFFICE TOTAL: $19.3 million
“Step Brothers” (2008)
AMERICAN BOX OFFICE TOTAL: $100.4 million
FOREIGN BOX OFFICE TOTAL: $27.6 million
AMERICAN BOX OFFICE TOTAL: $33.4 million
FOREIGN BOX OFFICE TOTAL: $10.4 million
“Blades of Glory” (2007)
AMERICAN BOX OFFICE TOTAL: $118.5 million
FOREIGN BOX OFFICE TOTAL: $27.1
With the exception of the animated “Megamind,” Will Ferrell’s movies do not travel well abroad. They routinely (and kind of shockingly) draw 75% of their total worldwide earnings in the United States alone. Whether Ferrell’s movies are hits (like “Blades of Glory”) or flops (like “Last of the Lost”) here hardly seems to matter. Winner or loser, they’re always losers overseas.
This isn’t true of all American comedians. Adam Sandler regularly grosses just as much overseas as he does in the U.S. (his last film, “Just Go With It,” made $103 million domestically and $111 million internationally.). I guess Cajun Man is funny wherever you are.
I completely understand the reasons why some comedies don’t survive their exportation. Filmmakers like Judd Apatow are working with particular phrasings of language and culturally specific touchstones. Part of the reason American audiences love those movies is because they speak to some fundamental part of the American experience, one that some international audiences might not be able to relate to. Unfortunately, what makes these movies worth seeing here is the same thing dooming them at the foreign box office.
But just because I understand this phenomenon doesn’t mean I like it. This is just the latest and maybe the most frustrating example of the mass mainstreaming of American movie culture. It’s not enough to for a movie to be good, it has to translate too. Giant transforming robots translate. A God with a badass magical hammer translates. A joke about Michael McDonald playing on an endless loop in box electronic stores doesn’t translate. It’s almost as if we’ve returned to the silent era of film: dialogue is out and visual storytelling is in. These aren’t sound films; they’re noise films.
Let’s hope this only means the shrinking of comedy budgets, not the removal of comedies from Hollywood development slates altogether. I’m a little worried that some day they’ll be gone completely, or replaced by comedies starring the robots from “Transformers.” Or maybe we’re approaching a dystopian world where all movies star the robots from “Transformers”: “Transformers” comedies, “Transformers” romances, “Transformers” eco-docs.
Okay, so maybe that last one would be kind of interesting.