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The first trailer for Sony’s sexy comedy Without hard feelings, in theaters June 23, features star Jennifer Lawrence consoling an ex by declaring she’s not over him: “Last night I was like, ‘I miss that asshole.’ Moviegoers might share a similar nostalgia, recalling an era not too long ago when the studio’s offerings centered around ribald jokes were regularly played in theaters, before disappearing.
This summer hints at a possible turning of the tide. As audiences return to theaters post-pandemic, studios appear to be using the next few months as a testing ground for the theatrical return of R-rated comedy. Without hard feelingsabout an awkward teenager whose parents hire Lawrence’s persona to date, he’ll later have company from Lionsgate Ride of joy (July 7), Universal’s Strays (August 18) and MGM Funds (August 25). Such projects are similar to horror films in offering viewers the experience of watching shocking moments with a group of like-minded strangers. But unlike the horror genre, it’s been a while since fans of raunchy comedy had a headline-grabbing theatrical title to rally around.
“It’s definitely not an easy genre,” says Jim Orr, Universal’s president of domestic theatrical distribution The Hollywood Reporter of vulgar comedies. “We still think it’s an important genre. We still think it’s something that makes sense theatrically, but it’s a difficult thing to do.
After hitting the zeitgeist in the late 90s with Crazy about Mary AND american piebawdy comedy flourished over the next decade (think 40 year old virgin, Wedding Crashers, Very bad). But while later striking how The Hangover (2009), Bridesmaids (2011), German (2012) e Via Salto 22 (2014) all ranked in the top 15 domestically highest-grossing titles of their respective years, viewers looking for big laughs, profanity, and horny leads in recent years have had to rely heavily on catching streaming service offerings from the sofa.
Just like how Disney’s decision to release Pixar titles directly to Disney+ may have impacted moviegoer habits on the go Elementaryof the disappointing box office debut, Without hard feelings it’s been looking for an opening arc of nearly $12 million, which means it’s going to need legs to be a hit. A typical selling point for comedies is low budgets, but this was expensive, with Lawrence saying he was looking for a $25 million payday when Sony outnumbered streamers in 2021.
Among the R-rated comedies that will hit streaming platforms instead of theaters from 2022 is Netflix’s vehicle Rebel Wilson Last yearwith Kevin Hart I Time and Eddie Murphy with the forehead You peoplethe latter leading among these stocks with 3.86 billion viewed minutes and four weeks logged in the streamer’s top 10, according to Nielsen.
“Many genres have disappeared when they’re so aggressively done in a streaming space,” says Sanford Panitch, president of Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group. “Studios won’t make holiday comedies if there are six holiday comedies on a streaming platform. So it’s partly about finding the spaces that are theatrical and not feeling like there’s something that someone can get at home for free.
For filmmakers, knowing what elevates a project in the comedy space remains as elusive as the genre tries to break this lull. “The message I’m getting from the studio execs is that they want big event comedies and gritty R-rated comedies that people are going to talk about,” says Tracy Oliver, the writer behind the Lionsgate horror comedy The blackening — which opened to $7 million during the Juneteenth holiday — which also penned the popular 2017 Girls trip and is working on its sequel. “Movies like Girls trip 2 AND The blackening they pass the litmus test for theater because they are considered event comedies meant to be enjoyed in large groups.
While streaming may offer ease to consumers, creatives across the board are craving a theatrical release. Such was the case with screenwriter Dan Perrault, whose live-action Strays follows a dog voiced by Will Ferrell seeking vengeance against his neglectful owner – and Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, Teresa Hsiao and Adele Lim, the writers behind Ride of joy, about a woman who travels across China to find her biological mother. (“Huge, high priority – absolute goal,” Chevapravatdumrong says of its screening in cinemas.)
“There seems to be an idea of ’Let’s release these $15 million comedies on stream instead of in the theater,’” says LP, director of the 2020 Netflix comedy Desperate. She praises the film’s platform support, which was set up at Universal before she was attached, but acknowledges that having a film in theaters “would be a dream.” That said, the director notes that going to the cinema could bring pressure during the opening weekend and she jokes about her memorable scene in the film: “Does the dolphin’s penis stay if you go to the cinema? Maybe not.”
Studios aren’t the only ones tracking public interest in this summer’s options. “Ride of joy it’s going to be a great test, and if it’s successful, people will be like, ‘Oh, my God, the big comedy is back,'” he says Girls trip director Malcolm D. Lee. “Everyone is risk averse, particularly with theater, so it will be very interesting to see what happens.”
Another factor is that the Peak TV era has caused studios to make series with ideas that might previously have merited feature film treatment. Take German, which raised a whopping $218 million domestically in 2012 ($289 million today, adjusted for inflation) before a 2015 sequel underperformed; a prequel series is coming to Peacock soon. Director Nick Stoller (Neighborhood) releases its new Apple TV+ show Platonicwith Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, in a similar category and says of the show’s team, “We’d talk about how a version of this would have been a movie 10 years ago, but it’s easier to just do it on the small screen. ”
Filmmakers point out that theater is important to the length of a feature film, especially a comedy. “If I were head of the studios, I would put all my comedy money into R-rated comedies,” says Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The heat). While Feig’s most recent projects, including last year’s The school of good and evil for Netflix, they’ve moved away from space, come back soon with R-rated Grand Theft lotlooking to a 2024 release. It hails from Amazon Studios, but Feig sees the possibility of a theatrical release as one perk of working with the company, which recently debuted Air in theaters: “I’m pushing very, very hard to get a theatrical release for this one because it’s a group experience.”
Jeremy Garelick, who worked on the screenplay for The Hangover and has directed films including Netflix’s recent Adam Sandler offering Murder mystery 2, is so confident in the genre of R-rated teen comedy that he launched the production company American High, which acquired a high school in Syracuse, New York, to use to make inexpensive movies. Garelick, who worked at CAA when the original american pie The script has been leaked, bets that pop culture follows a roughly 20-year cycle as teenagers grow up to become the new gatekeepers. He says of teen sex movies, “They’ll come back, it’s just a matter of time.”
In Hollywood’s increasingly intellectual-property-driven era, the studio’s risk-taking required to support original comedic ideas has declined, though the superhero craze is showing signs of audience fatigue. One franchise that is preparing for its expected return is that of Ryan Reynolds Dead Pool movies, who have successfully managed to infuse high-octane action with F-bombs and penis jokes.
“When I saw Dead PoolI was like, ‘Shit, I should have done this movie,’” says Kevin Smith, the Employees director and comic book geek who has more recently shunned the studio system and has followed a model of taking his films on a national theater tour. He commends Fox for initially taking a chance by pushing the boundaries Dead Pool: “At first the studio wasn’t interested in doing it, then they did and they were rewarded for going the extra mile.”
But, like Jordan VanDina, director of Hulu It’s a wonderful binge and writer of dodgeball 2observes, “I think it will take just one big-grossing comedy in theaters to bring about a whole new set of irreverent stage comedies.”
As far as studies are concerned, eyes are on Without hard feelings AND Strays, though failure to connect doesn’t mean like-minded projects are necessarily put on hold. “Genre certainly doesn’t depend on the next two films,” says Orr. “But you always see box office patterns and imitation when you find out what works.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to register now.