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The 'Ted' Test: Can a Foul-Mouthed Teddy Bear Save Big-Budget Comedies?

Films like Seth MacFarlane's directorial debut may be endangered at the American box office, where smaller, ensemble films are becoming a surer way to attract audiences who want to laugh.

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Ted—the raunchy directorial debut of Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane that stars Mark Wahlberg and hits theaters today—opens with an eight-year-old boy wishing on a shooting star that his beloved teddy bear will come to life. If only it were that easy. In reality, it took a whole team to bring Ted to life, from the motion-capture acting and vocal performance of MacFarlane to the computer animation by visual-effects specialists Tippett Studio. Making a walking, talking teddy bear a plausible character in the real world takes a lot of great effects work, and a lot of great effects work costs a lot of money—in this case, a total production budget of $65 million.

From a production standpoint, Ted's high budget makes it a particularly risky proposition. It's an effects-heavy, hard-R comedy from an director who hasn't proven himself on the big screen. Recent history gives even more cause for concern. Big-budget comedies were once some of the most reliable earners in Hollywood. But over the past few years, audiences have turned away from them in favor of smaller, independent options—and Hollywood is starting to feel the grind. Filmmgoing trends may be aligned against a film like Ted, but the movie can also be seen as a response to those trends. Will Ted find success in a market where its fellow big-budget comedies have failed? Or is the age of the big-budget comedy drawing to a close?

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For obvious reasons, live-action comedies lend themselves less easily to 3D and don't play well abroad.

Hollywood has long believed in the power of an A-List star to sell a comedy—and until recently, there was good reason to believe it. But the cracks in the tried-and-true format were never clearer than last year, when $50 million-plus comedies like Jack and Jill (which was anchored by not one, but two performances by Adam Sandler) and New Year's Eve (which featured pretty much everybody in Hollywood) failed to earn their production budgets back domestically. The trend has seemingly accelerated this year. The Julia Roberts-starring Mirror Mirror cost $85 million to make but brought in only $65 million,the Johnny Depp-starring Dark Shadows cost $150 million but made only $76 million, and the Adam Sandler-starring That's My Boy cost $70 million but took in only $30 million. If the mere presence of an A-List star was ever enough to draw an audience in, it certainly isn't anymore. That's true across film genres—the combined force of Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, after all, couldn't save Cowboys & Aliens last year—but truest when it comes to comedy. Call it the Judd Apatow effect: Anchoring a comedy with an ensemble of likable, lesser-known actors has proven far more effective than relying on one high-priced star, from cheaply made hits like this year's Think Like a Man to earlier surprise box-office smashes like The Hangover or Bridesmaids.

With star power starting to fail, Hollywood studios have turned to the inflated ticket prices of 3D screenings to boost its bottom line. It's hard to find a high-profile action flick or a family-oriented animated film that isn't being released in 3D. But for obvious reasons, live-action comedies lend themselves less easily to the format. Of the many comedies released over the past few years, only a few (Gulliver's Travels and A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, along with genre hybrids like superhero/comedy The Green Hornet, horror/comedy Piranha 3D, or sci-fi/comedy Men in Black 3) have earned the extra money that goes along with every ticket sold to a 3D movie.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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