A second large LNG supply contract between Qatar and China has been agreed upon. In the new teaser for Sony’s upcoming sex comedy No Hard Feelings, Lawrence reassures an ex that she hasn’t forgotten him: “I miss that fucker,” I told myself last night. The public may feel similarly nostalgic about the days when risqué comedies regularly played in theaters before mysteriously disappearing.
There may have been a turn of events this summer. Studios seem to be using the next few months as a trial run for the theatrical resurrection of the R-rated comedy as audiences return to theaters following the pandemic. Later releases include Lionsgate’s Joy Ride (July 7), Universal’s Strays (August 18), and MGM’s Bottoms (August 25), all of which will compete with No Hard Feelings, about an awkward youngster whose parents hire Lawrence’s character to date him. They’re similar to horror movies in that they let strangers bond over a shared feeling of suspense. But unlike horror fans, raunchy comedy fans have been waiting for a while for a blockbuster theatrical film to unite them.
According to Jim Orr, head of Universal’s domestic theatrical distribution, “it is absolutely not an easy genre,” as he told The Hollywood Reporter. The genre is still quite significant in our eyes. We still believe it has dramatic merit, but we recognize its difficulty.
With the success of There’s Something About Mary and American Pie in the late ’90s, risqué comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Wedding Crashers, and Superbad flourished in the 2000s. While later hits such as The Hangover (2009), Bridesmaids (2011), Ted (2012), and 22 Jump Street (2014) all ranked among the top 15 highest-grossing titles domestically in their respective years, viewers looking for big laughs, bad words, and horny leads in recent years have had to rely on streaming-service offerings from the comfort of their own couches.
No Hard Feelings has been projected for an initial bow of roughly $12 million, so it will require legs to be a smash, just as Disney’s move to release Pixar titles directly to Disney+ may have impacted viewer patterns leading up to Elemental’s dismal box office start. The cheap budget is usually a selling factor for comedies, but Sony outbid streamers in 2021 for this one, reportedly because Lawrence wanted $25 million.
Netflix’s Senior Year, starring Rebel Wilson, Kevin Hart’s Me Time, and Eddie Murphy’s You People are all R-rated comedies that have landed on streaming platforms rather than in theaters since 2022, with You People leading the pack with 3.86 billion viewing minutes and four weeks logged in the streamer’s top 10.
According to Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group president Sanford Panitch, “lots of genres have disappeared when they are made so aggressively in a streaming space.” If there are already six Christmas comedies available on a streaming service, studios will not produce any more. That’s why it’s important to look for dramatic settings rather than assuming that everyone has access to the same materials in their own homes.
While the comedy genre desperately needs to break its current slump, filmmakers still have a hard time pinpointing what exactly works in the comedy sector. “The message I’m getting from studio executives is they want big event comedies and racy R-rated comedies that people will talk about,” says Tracy Oliver, who wrote 2017’s popular Girls Trip and is working on a sequel. The Blackening, from Lionsgate, opened to $7 million over the Juneteenth holiday. “Movies like Girls Trip 2 and The Blackening are considered event comedies that are meant to be enjoyed in large groups, so they meet the criterion for theatrical.”
While customers may appreciate the convenience of streaming, artists of all stripes yearn for a theatrical debut. Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, Teresa Hsiao, and Adele Lim wrote the screenplay for Joy Ride, about a woman who travels across China to find her birth mother, and Dan Perrault’s live-action Strays follows a dog voiced by Will Ferrell who seeks revenge on his negligent owner. Playing in theaters is a “huge, high priority—an absolute goal,” as Chevapravatdumrong puts it.
LP, director of the upcoming 2020 Netflix comedy Desperados, has noticed a trend toward “let’s release these $15 million comedies on streaming instead of at the theater.” Although she is appreciative of the platform’s backing of the project (which was already in development at Universal before she was attached), she does admit that seeing it in cinemas “would be a dream.” However, the director warns that coming to the cinemas on opening weekend can be stressful, and she makes a joke about the movie’s most memorable scene by asking, “Does the dolphin penis stay if you’re going to the theater?” Perhaps not.”
Studios aren’t the only ones keeping an eye on what people want to see this summer. “Joy Ride is going to be a very good test,” says Girls Trip director Malcolm D. Lee. “If it’s successful, people will be like, ‘Oh, my God, big comedy is back.'” It will be interesting to see what happens because “everyone is risk-averse, particularly with theatrical.”
The Peak TV era has also enticed studios to turn ideas that would have been better suited for features into television series. Consider Ted, which made $218 million in the U.S. in 2012 (or $289 million in today’s dollars) but whose sequel fizzled in 2015; a prequel series is coming shortly to Peacock. Director Nick Stoller (Neighbors) likens his new Apple TV+ series Platonic, starring Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, to such works, saying of the show’s crew, “We would talk about how a version of this would have been a movie 10 years ago, but it’s easier to just do this on the small screen.”
Theatrical release is crucial to the success of a feature film, especially a comedy, according to industry professionals. Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) believes that he would invest all of his comedy money in R-rated comedies if he ran the studios. Although Feig’s latest work, such as last year’s The School for Good and Evil for Netflix, has moved away from the genre, he will be returning with the R-rated Grand Death Lotto, which is scheduled for release in 2024. Because of the studio’s recent success with the release of the movie Air, director Paul Feig is enthusiastic about the prospect of a theatrical distribution: “I’m pushing very, very hard to get a theatrical release for this because it’s a group experience.”
In order to capitalize on the booming R-rated teen comedy market, director and The Hangover co-writer Jeremy Garelick recently founded a production company called American High and bought a high school in Syracuse, New York, to use as a set for low-budget films. Former CAA employee Garelick is making a wager that the 20-year cycle of popular culture is a result of the maturation of adolescents into the new gatekeepers. In reference to teen sex movies, he predicts, “It’s going to come back—iit’s just a matter of time.”
Despite signals of audience fatigue with the superhero craze, Hollywood has become increasingly IP-driven, reducing the studio risk-taking required to fund fresh comedy ideas. Franchises like Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool have fans waiting for their return because of the franchise’s unique blend of high-octane action, cuss words, and penis jokes.
Kevin Smith, the filmmaker of Clerks and a comic book lover, has just abandoned the studio structure in favor of a format in which his films embark on a countrywide theatrical tour. “When I saw Deadpool, I was like, Fucking, I should have made this movie,'” Smith says. Fox deserves credit for being willing to take a risk on the controversial Deadpool, saying, “The studio wasn’t fucking executives interested in doing that, and then they did and were rewarded for going out on the edge.”
As Hulu’s It’s a Wonderful Binge director and Dodgeball 2 screenwriter Jordan VanDina puts it, “I think all it will take is one high-grossing R-rated comedy in theaters to bring in a whole new slate of irreverent theatrical comedies.”
Studios are keeping a close eye on No Hard Feelings and Strays; however, the failure of either film to find an audience does not always spell the end for similar efforts. There’s no need to wait for these two movies to define the genre, as Orr puts it. When something is successful at the box office, it’s often imitated.