LOS ANGELES — Hollywood comedies have been no laughing matter of late.
Once a staple of summer and one of the most bankable genres in movies, comedies have lost their edge at the box office.
According to a study by film tracking site The-numbers.com, comedies accounted for more than 25 percent of the industry’s ticket sales a decade ago. But this year, comedies are on pace to account for less than 12 percent of revenues, the lowest percentage in the modern era, the survey shows.
Exacerbating the drop: Fewer comedies are being made. Between 2005 and 2008, major studios released about 130 comedies each year; in the past four years, the average has dropped to just under 100.
“It’s not been a great bet for Hollywood lately, because studios love their franchises, love their trilogies,” says Jeff Bock, vice president of industry tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. “And creating a sequel for a comedy is hard, let alone a trilogy. So they’re not high on (studios’) radar.”
He points to the “Hangover” series as emblematic of comedy’s woes. The 2009 original, which cost $35 million to make, did $277 million at the box office. But the 2011 sequel was excoriated by critics and did a disappointing $255 million. And this year’s third installment, also raked by movie reviewers, has stalled at $110 million since opening May 23.
“When a franchise that was that big does those kinds of numbers, studios are going to take notice,” Bock says. “And the impression isn’t favorable.”
“The Hangover Part III”‘s quick demise at theaters has studios pinning summer comedy hopes on “The Heat,” opening Friday and starring Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock as cops, and Aug. 7’s “We’re the Millers,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis.
Some of the reasons behind the decline:
Potty mouths. Today’s comedies require coarse language “to sound realistic,” Bock says. “But an f-bomb is going to get you an R-rating, which is automatically going to limit the box office you can do.”
The international market. As overseas revenues become more important — they now make up at least 60 percent of a movie’s overall business — comedy takes a backseat to spectacle and 3-D. “Comedy is harder to translate than special effects,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Hollywood.com’s box office division. “People are expecting movies to be events and bigger than ever. That’s not easy to pull off with a comedy.”
The little screen. As ticket prices continue to climb, “people need a good reason to go to the movies, spend the money, get a babysitter,” Dergarabedian says. “And there’s a lot of competition from TV when it comes to comedy. TV can’t match 3-D or special effects. But comedy can seem more intimate, and people consider television a viable alternative.”
There are stars who still shine in comedy, notably “The Heat”‘s McCarthy. She anchored 2011’s comedy hit “Bridesmaids,” which did $169 million, and she co-stars with Jason Bateman in this year’s biggest comedy to date, “Identity Thief,” which has collected $135 million since its Feb. 8 opening.
Analysts expect “The Heat” to do at least $150 million domestically.
“Maybe that changes the trend this summer,” Bock says. “Audiences love her, and everything we’re seeing indicates “The Heat” is going to be huge. The studio will probably want a sequel, and will get one. The question for studios today is finding a comedy series that audiences want to follow beyond the first story.”
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