Will Ferrell, maybe the biggest American comedy star of the last decade, is a perfect example of Hollywood’s new financial reality. Since breaking out with 2003’s Elf, he’s starred in nine comedies that made over $100 million domestically, and several more that earned healthy, if smaller, profits. His 2006 NASCAR comedy Talladega Nights was a huge surprise hit that played well to audiences in red states and blue states alike, earning $148 million as it tweaked America’s obsession with stock car drivers while lovingly depicting their world. But Talladega Nights only made $14 million overseas, or 9 percent of the film’s total gross worldwide.
That’s an extreme example, but a telling one, too. In 2016, it’s typical for a film to make more than 60 percent of its takings outside of America, as evidenced by some of this year’s biggest hits (Zootopia, Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). Look at comedy’s biggest hits, and you’ll see the opposite trend. Ferrell’s last movie, Daddy’s Home, made a healthy $150 million in America, but only $90 million worldwide, or 37 percent of its total. Trainwreck, one of the breakout comedy hits of 2015, took $110 million in America and only $30 million more overseas. That means that when a comedy fails, it can’t rely on overseas dollars to clean up the mess like so many big-budget action movies do.
Warcraft, perceived as a colossal bomb, made a staggering $433 million total, only 10 percent of it in the United States. Pacific Rim, seen as a financial misfire, is getting a sequel on the back of its performance in China alone. Wonder why they’re making another Pirates of the Caribbean film when the franchise seems to have lost its luster? Because the fourth edition, On Stranger Tides, made 77 percent of its takings outside of America. The biggest comedy hit of 2016 is Central Intelligence, starring Kevin Hart and The Rock, which blended its big laughs with plenty of gun-toting violence, much like the Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy. But even that mix of stars and action underperformed overseas.
The main reason comedies are flopping at the American Film Market is their lack of star power. Sacha Baron Cohen, who broke out as a star in Talladega Nights and had a huge hit 10 years ago with Borat, has floundered as a comedy star—his latest effort, The Brothers Grimsby, made only $25 million worldwide, and his new vehicle is being produced independently as a result. Look back at 2006’s box-office hits and you’ll see many stars who can no longer open a film on reputation alone. Adam Sandler (his 2006 hit was Click) is now making smaller-budget straight-to-streaming action comedies for Netflix, each getting worse reviews than the last. Vince Vaughn (2006’s The Break-Up) is more of a supporting player in dramas these days, his last hit being the forgotten 2009 comedy Couples Retreat. Matthew McConaughey (who had Failure to Launch that year), a rom-com star in the aughts, hasn’t returned to the genre since Ghosts of Girlfriends Past tanked in 2009.