Is China Killing American Comedies?


Spyglass Entertainment/Warner Bros./De Line Pictures

Sure, everyone had a laugh at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association when it gave three Golden Globe nominations to Burlesque, and two to The Tourist, omitting True Grit—the entry from our national treasures the Coen Brothers—altogether. Guffaws all around. "Still living down Pia Zadora" and "all about delivering major movie stars to the gala," was the general feeling around here, basically relegating the musical-comedy category to a joke, albeit a very well attended, well-dressed, and over-covered joke.

It was a bad year for our pedigree dramedy directors James L. Brooks (How Do You Know) and Ed Zwick (Love and Other Drugs), whose movies admittedly performed badly at the box office, but Zwick's at least had better reviews than The Tourist, for God's sake. But un-nominated as well were comedy giants like Hangover's Todd Phillips with his $90 million-grossing Due Date, ( Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis), Get Him to the Greek from the vaunted Apatow cottage (Jonah Hill and Russell Brand), Life as We Know It, from TV auteur Greg Berlanti—which if you liked it or loved it or were just ok about it, was an earnest, well performed effort, and was no doubt considered by most better as a comedy than Burlesque was as a musical.

And where was the beloved and reliable international star Adam Sandler, who has worked the territories like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, for Grown Ups? You remember Grown Ups? This summer? It grossed over $100 million domestically.

The point is, comedies are missing, and this means trouble. Right here in River City.

Why would we care what the silly—possibly, it is whispered—corruptible foreign press thinks, you might ask? Because the huge omission of comedy represents the "not getting" of our comedies overseas, and the overseas markets more and more drive what is getting made in America. Believe me, international was always important. Always a big part of our studio slates; they drive our tent pole action movies, our Terminators and Transformers. Even misfires like The A-Team are made for international consumption (where they almost make their money back) even more than domestic. But these days, international distribution drives the rationale of most of studio decision making and is at the basis of the economics, even of indies. If they don't get it overseas these days, the movie will be much much harder to get made, if not impossible. Period. Start of crisis.

To think this is only two years from The Hangover. Things change fast around here.

What seemed like a bizarre and inexplicable snub of True Grit, can at first be seen merely another of their recent rejections of the sensibility of the Coen brothers (who have never been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture). But on a deeper, more structural level, this underscores the foreign markets' similar alienation from the American Western, which are rarely co-financed abroad, and explains we see so few of them, and what may be ahead for American comedy. Only the rarest of filmmakers can get them made, and for a price; our western towns are dying across America, and most are shot in Canada. "Dust and cowboy hats are a no no," for international distribution, I was told when the head of Fox international (now its co-president) saw a cowboy hat on Harry Connick's head on the one-sheet for Hope Floats. Nonetheless, he loved the movie and sold it, country to country, door to door and it worked, helping to establish (with Speed, earlier) Sandra Bullock as one of the few (with Jodie Foster, Julia Roberts, and Cameron Diaz) women with high and significant popularity in the foreign markets. (This explains both the casting of Knight and Day, and its higher performance overseas.)

I bet you didn't know that Taken starring Liam Neeson could be seen as the seminal movie of our time. I say that because the preponderance of business plans of new movies being financed are based on a model based on Taken. Every Tom, Dick, and Ari is looking for the same movie: A thriller, made for, say, $20 million or something, where one's child, or wife, or wife and child, or state secret hidden in the crib of your child, has been, say: taken. And there is a terrifying implication set to a clock to retrieve that clock, wife, child, and nuclear secret. It stars: Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis, or Sly, (expected to show that old dogs perform new tricky flips). Jodie Foster works too.

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Lynda Obst is a producer and writer who has made 15 films in her producing career, at almost every major studio. More

Lynda Obst was recruited to Hollywood from the New York Times Magazine in 1979 by Peter Guber, for whom she developed Flashdance and Clue, as well as beginning the development of Carl Sagan’s Contact. In 1985, Obst partnered with producer Debra Hill, forming Hill/Obst Productions at Paramount Pictures. They soon made the iconic teen pic Adventures in Babysitting. Then the duo produced Terry Gilliam’s Oscar-nominated The Fisher King, starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges.

Obst then began a solo-producing career, where she produced Nora Ephron’s directing debut, This Is My Life, and executive produced Ephron’s second film, Sleepless in Seattle. Obst then produced The Siege, Hope Floats, One Fine Day, and Someone Like You. One of Obst’s earlier projects came full circle when she came on Contact for Warner Bros. in 1997, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster. In 1999, she executive produced NBC’s Emmy Nominated, two-part miniseries The 60s. Then Lynda moved back to Paramount Pictures, where she produced such films as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Abandon.

Obst’s most recent film was the September Warner Bros. release of Ricky Gervais/Matthew Robinson's directorial debut The Invention of Lying, starring Gervais and Jennifer Garner. Her notable upcoming projects include Steven Spielberg’s Interstellar, a sci-fi feature from The Dark Knight scribe Jonathan Nolan, based on a story by Obst, Nolan, and Dr. Kip Thorne; What Was I Thinking, starring Leslie Mann, Elizabeth Banks & Jennifer Garner; and Getting Rid of Matthew, starring Jennifer Aniston.

She has long written about the movie business for magazines and blogs, including a long running Oscar dialogue with New York Magazine critic David Edelstein.

Lynda Obst’s magazine writing, as well as more information on her films, can be found on her website: visit

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