So far, 2019 has been an abysmal year at the box office for original films. Out of the top six highest grossing films of the year so far, five have belonged to the same studio (Disney), and the sixth has a connection to a Disney-owned franchise. Comedies have gotten in particularly rough, as there have been multiple high-profile flops from major studios. If something doesn’t get back on track (and soon), we’ll be left with little more than comic book movies and remakes of animated classics.
The first sign of the death of the studio comedy came in early May. After riding great reactions out of its SXSW debut, the rom-com Long Shot, starring Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, opened to a meager $9.7 million dollars. Although its 3x multiple to close to $30.3 suggests good word-of-mouth, a gross that low is nothing short of embarrassing. Granted, the film was fighting the behemoth Avengers: Endgame at the box office, but since there is only minor overlap in the target audiences, a film like this should have opened much higher.
Long Shot had star power going for it. Of Rogen’s last five R-rated comedies that received a wide release, the lowest-grossing was the Christmas comedy The Night Before, which made $43 million over the 2015 Holiday. However, unlike Long Shot, that film only had a limited period of play before it would falter (only five weeks between its release and the Christmas holiday). Meanwhile, there were nine weeks after the release of Long Shot until another raunchy comedy opened in more than 3,000 theaters.
Another SXSW premiere, Booksmart, faltered in the later part of May despite immense critical support. This film did have a lack of star power working against it — it didn’t have supposedly bankable stars such as Rogen or Theron to boost its name — but not too long ago, that wouldn’t have been an issue. Back in 2007, Superbad, starring a then little-known Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, made $127.5 million at the box office and was one of the biggest hits of the summer.
So why, in 2019, could Booksmart not replicate that success? Part of the issue is that the film wasn’t marketed correctly. United Artists did give the film a big marketing push because of the goodwill it got after its premiere. Yet the film still topped out at $22.6 million. Perhaps if the film had been released in more theaters at a less crowded time, it could have made a bigger splash. Or is there just not a desire for female-centric original comedies? That seems unlikely.
Then, in July, came Stuber. A work-in-progress cut was also shown at SXSW, where it got a lukewarm reception, and the reviews got more negative closer to release. This film did not have the quality of the two aforementioned films, though it did feature two up-and-coming stars in Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista. Yet the film still opened with a meager $8.2 million and is on track to end up with less than $23 million by the time it finishes it run.
What happened to the time in which an original action comedy starring up-and-coming stars would dominate the box office? In 1984, Beverly Hills Cop was the highest grossing film of the year and solidified Eddie Murphy’s status as a movie star. Yes, that was thirty-five years ago (and Beverly Hills Cop was a much better film), but Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer has plenty of fans. Apparently he isn’t a compelling enough name to draw crowds to a film on his own. Maybe if Fox had shelved Stuber until after Nanjiani’s MCU debut in next year’s Eternals, this article would be singing an entirely different tune about the studio comedy.
Even revivals of franchises that were once big draws did not make big bucks at the box office this year. June saw the release of reboots Shaft and Men in Black: International, which have made $21.3 million and $79 million to this point, respectively. It’s not like the films didn’t have big names attached — both star actors hot off their MCU kick — so why did they not cash in? One could argue that audiences are tired of seeing the same old thing, but with original films failing too, is it just that audiences are tired of seeing anything that isn’t a comic book movie?
Comedies aimed at kids are failing as well. Sequels to The LEGO Movie and The Secret Life of Pets put out extremely disappointing returns. Both films made less than half of what their predecessors made a few years ago. A three-year gap shouldn’t be enough for kids to age out of the audience for The Secret Life of Pets, and two spin-offs have been released since The LEGO Movie hit theaters in 2014 to keep interest alive. Has Disney simply become the definitive provider of family entertainment? If so, that’s a scary prospect, especially with their acquisition of Fox.
The only exception in 2019 for the studio comedy was The Upside, starring Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston. One of the last remnants from the Weinstein empire, this film had a lot of the trademark qualities of a studio comedy hit: a bankable star in Kevin Hart, a feel-good storyline, and a release date that put it up against very little competition. This pushed the film to $108.2 million at the box office, making it the only studio comedy to top that $100 million milestone this year so far.
So if something like The Upside can make money in 2019, why can’t stuff like Long Shot, Booksmart, and Stuber do the same? Long Shot, in particular, shares many of the same qualities as The Upside, and was generally perceived as the better film. Particularly surprising is that The Upside still did so well despite having been shelved due to the dissolution of its original distributor.
Ultimately, film criticism has become meaningless in relation to the box office. Gone are the days when great reviews could push a film to success. For the most part, a film’s success at the box office is determined well before critics even get the chance to see the film. The awards hype isn’t even a driving factor in box office gross anymore. It has been since 2012 (Argo) that a Best Picture winner has made more than $100 million.
The trend has also shifted more and more to franchise fare dominating the cineplexes. Since 2010, only one film that is not a film in an established series or universe was the highest grossing film of the year, which was American Sniper in 2014. And chances are, something like that will probably never happen again.
The next original comedy to come to theaters is Good Boys, opening on August 16, and the signs aren’t looking great for its prospects. Reviews are middling as of right now, and the film has been the subject of controversy because of its (very) young protagonists. The only “star power” the film has is Will Forte (in a small supporting role), the lead Jacob Tremblay (whose most recognizable role to this point was in the reboot of The Predator that bombed), and Seth Rogen (who only serves as a producer). It’s very funny, and deserves to be seen, but sadly, it seems like the trend is going to continue.
So does this all spell the end of creativity and originality in cinema? The short answer is yes, it does. We have yet to see another smash hit like Crazy Rich Asians in 2019, and we probably won’t. Although there have been plenty of quality films that served underrepresented audiences (Booksmart being chief among them), there haven’t been any breakouts. Unless something surprises in the latter half of 2019, studios are going to take note, and we will be seeing fewer and fewer studio comedies getting wide releases.
Do you want to live in a world where all you can see at the cinema is the same cookie-cutter film over and over again?