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.

That is, a non-$20 million+ player with big international numbers. Not too expensive, or it becomes too expensive for the model. Perfect is someone in a franchise from the '80s or '90s whom you can pay say $5 million and get $15 million back internationally from a few Asian territories to guarantee the cost of the movie back in pre-production. That is how studios and independents are now justifying the movies they green light.

What you see here is basically no love for comedies because apparently our comedies don't travel. (With the important exception of Adam Sandler.) For years now our domestic comedy stars haven't been able to open a movie overseas. Sandler has been carefully building his overseas market, doing his foreign junkets, and it's possible that his physical comedy translates better, a la Jerry Lewis, than more dialogue-dependent comics. Stars know their power is in building their numbers overseas, and today more and more this drives our reality. But our comedy auteurs, our Apatows, Stillers, Andersons, have found to be inscrutable, if you will, to the Asian fan boy action clique. Nuance doesn't dub well in Filipino.

Our rom-coms have made some headway, (Julie and Julia was huge, as was Something's Gotta Give and even the less successful domestically Sex and the City 2) and when our costs are down, it's a good model. I had a few that made big money with no gross players and budget under $50 million that performed well over $250 million domestically and internationally. But that's mostly Europe and Japan. That number is now nothing compared to what can be generated from all the international markets on a franchise movie. What profit margin are you going for? Bears or Pigs? Enormous is relative, and it's harder to dazzle them with a $250 million once they've seen Paris. Or in the contemporary parlance of The Social Network: "You know what's cool? A billion dollars."

This could mean the final IQ-sapper in the dumbing-down of our movies, the lack of great dialogue and character wit just as TV starts getting brains. And its effect on the indie model is terrifying. Will every movie be a thriller?

Will all comedy migrate to TV? Only two years ago, television people were moaning that the sitcom was dead, and now laughter on TV is alive again with great writing and funny actors a la Modern Family. It seems as though all we had to do was cut the number of cameras from four to one, and a whole new era was born.

I had been telling people that the syndication of Friends and Seinfeld created a foreign audience for my romantic comedies, as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Hope Floats had made some big money in Europe and Japan, when WHOOPS! The studios no longer cared. Huge numbers were coming in from action pictures that dwarfed comedies like mine. No sooner had The Hangover made movie history with its domestic numbers and no-name cast, which spawned a million pitches, when suddenly no one was cloning it, (except itself) and it seems selling a comedy is a nightmare. Managers and agents are feeling it in comedy spec sales, which now can hardly be made without talent attached. Every script on this year's Black List (best spec scripts of the year) down to number 19 was a thriller or a drama- and the comedy was the only one not yet sold. And last year drama was dead. (More velocity of change). But at least you can sell drama foreign, that is, if it's a thriller, and it stars Liam Neeson. Guess what happened when Hangover 2 had to fire Mel Gibson, a known international star, with comedy chops, out of pressure from the cast and crew? They hired Liam Neeson. (I'm not kidding). It's all about Liam now.

But tell me the American audience is going to put up with this mediocre mind-numbing b.s. Fewer and fewer comedies and fewer female-driven movies with the same exact casts, packed like sardines as if each star had some deficiency on her own, more and more movies exactly like Taken is excruciating and insulting. When I came to town 600 years ago there was only one rule among people who thought they could quantify success: Funny is Money. And now, well now, that's still true, but it's not enough money.