Cover Story: Funny Business

Summer comedies don't get the blockbuster treatment but can sneak up on audiences

May 2, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Suzanne Hanover

Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in Knocked Up

Web-slingers. Pirates. Transforming mutant robots. These have long been the undisputed stars of summer films. They hoist the tent poles that comprise each studio's summer movie slate and they're expected — by virtue of their bigness, loudness and that special crack-like quality that will bring repeat business from the adolescent set — to make piles and piles of cash.

But what about that imbecilic racecar driver, the quadragenarian virgin or those classy cats who crash weddings?

They might not appear in the big Hollywood actioner or anchor the July 4th blockbuster, but these comic creations are every bit as important as the aforementioned cinematic heroes. Indeed, it's clear that while summer comedies are an afterthought when each studio determines which of its films to hype and over-market, they still have the potential to bring in big business. After all, with some exceptions, the summer comedy can be produced at a fraction of $200 million, CGI-spectacular, A-list-laden action/adventure.

So why doesn't the studio machine give the summer comedy more love?

Because guessing which ones will click with audiences is, to borrow the title of an old summer comedy, risky business.

In just the past five years a number of summer comedies earned their way to a top 10 finish in the annual box-office totals. Wedding Crashers (2005), Bruce Almighty (2003) and both My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) all finished in elite company in their respective years. And last year's Click and Talladega Nights, The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005) and Anchorman (2004) all were just behind the best in class, ending their summers as unqualified hits.

Which films due out during the upcoming dog days will surprise box-office analysts and delight audiences in the process? As stated, it's difficult to predict. But a few factors can help shed light: early marketing, release date and buzz-ability.

There are five laughers due out soon that are being treated like their big-budget brethren, with glossy marketing campaigns and high expectations. It shouldn't be surprising that four of the five are franchise pictures.

Evan Almighty (a loose sequel to Bruce Almighty and starring Steve Carell), Ocean's Thirteen (not a true comedy but its trailers do look funnier than its predecessors), the much-anticipated The Simpsons big-screen treatment and Rush Hour 3 all enter the season with as much awareness as any summer release not starring Johnny Depp. Throw in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, an Adam Sandler gay marriage satire, and you have five films that are expected to do big box office.

Of course, expectation and performance are two very different things. See Plane, Snakes on.

Release dates can also have a major impact on a comedy's business, but maybe not the way one would expect. Coming out on a big holiday weekend sounds like it would bode well for any film, but the truth is that studios will sometimes dump weaker fare (often comedies) on weekends that are otherwise owned by the summer behemoths like Spiderman 3 and Transformers. They'll call it "counter-programming" on those big weekends, but really they're hoping that people will see these alternate choices when the high-profile film is sold out.

Once Hollywood's dumping ground, that perfect little cinematic purgatory between the early summer months and the start of the Oscar-hopeful season, August is now the single best month for a comedy. Talladega Nights, The 40-Year Old Virgin, Napoleon Dynamite and My Big Fat Greek Wedding all were August releases and eventual hits.

This year's films born under the sign of Leo include:

· Rush Hour 3: the repairing of quick-footed Jackie Chan and loose-lipped Chris Tucker was inevitable after the second installment made over $200 million

· Mr. Bean's Holiday: Rowan Atkinson's buffoon travels to southern France, where, let's be honest, they appreciate buffoonery

· Superbad: awkward adolescence never looked so funny with Michael Cera (Arrested Development alum)

· The Comebacks: a lampoon of every recent feel-good sports film that might be worth seeing just to witness the triumphant return of Carl Weathers

· Good Luck Chuck: an odd combination of plot points between Wedding Crashers and 40-Year Old Virgin that holds promise if only for an unleashed Dane Cook and an undressed Jessica Alba

There are also those films that have that certain je ne sais quoi that need neither a plum release date nor a ubiquitous marketing campaign. These are films that gain a buzz — sometimes before its release but often after its first weekend — simply for sheer likeability.

There's no way, at this stage, to know which comedies could have that magical element just yet. But here are a handful of candidates to keep your eye on for a variety of reasons:

· Knocked Up: perennial character actor Seth Rogen moves to the lead in this Frat Pack descendent with loads of potential

· License to Wed: with Robin Williams, Mandy Moore and a whole host of The Office cast, this film has the pedigree and a built-in fan base to be a hit

· The Ex: can a comedy really be a sleeper with a cast — including Zach Braff, Amanda Peet and Jason Bateman — this delicious?

· I Could Never Be Your Woman: call it more of a romantic comedy than an out-and-out laugher, but it gets major props just for Paul Rudd dancing in the trailer

· The Brothers Solomon: detailing what happens when two home-schooled kids grow up and adjust to society and dating; starring underrated funnymen Will Arnett and Will Forte ©