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.
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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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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In addition to 3D, Hollywood has been relying on foreign audiences to offset unpredictable domestic viewership, even going so far as to alter major elements of big-budget movie scripts so they'll play better abroad. But that's tough to do with comedy, where so much of the humor comes from cultural references that don't translate well "We're trying to find comedies that travel internationally, which tend to be more physical or situational," Adam Goodman, president of Paramount Film Group, told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. "Comedy based on speech patterns and jokes have a harder time overseas." That's why you see films like Men in Black 3—which blends sci-fi and action with its comedy—going from flop status at home to smash status abroad. Even the critically panned Mirror Mirror and Dark Shadows turned a modest profit when foreign grosses were factored in, which is in part likely due to the two films' fantastical, effects-heavy elements (Mirror Mirror is a Snow White retelling, while Dark Shadows is a '70s-set vampire flick). Perhaps that's why Universal was willing to greenlight Ted: MacFarlane's jokes about "white-trash names" may not travel far outside American borders, but the inherent funniness of a foul-mouthed animated bear is universal.
Though Ted was expensive by comedy standards, it also cost less than Hollywood's other failed comedy tentpoles. But that might not be enough to save it. In recent years, making a comedy that costs $50 million or more has become a riskier proposition, with some solid hits (The Other Guys, Due Date) and some costly misses (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, How Do You Know, The Change-Up). Ted may or may not find the fratboy audience its ads have spent months courting. But recent history has shown that Hollywood has simpler, a far less risky option then betting the bank on a big-budget comedy: aim smaller. Domestically, the biggest recent budget-to-gross ratios have come in the form of lower-budgeted comedies, from the low-cost (50/50 and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which each grossed four times their $8 and $10 million production budgets) to the midrange (2011's Bad Teacher, which grossed five times its production budget, or this year's 21 Jump Street, which more than tripled its $42 million production budget). And the lower the budget, the higher the possibilities; this year's surprise hit Think Like a Man has earned more than seven times its thrifty $12 million production budget. A movie like last week's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which opened with just $3.8 million, is a disappointment—but it's a disappointment that cost only $10 million to produce. A romantic comedy about the apocalypse is about as hard a sell as a raunchy comedy about a talking teddy bear—but Ted has a lot more ground to make up before anyone can call it a hit.