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What gets lost when comedies go straight to streaming

Movie theaters are the most fun place to watch a comedy. What if that goes away?

The two stars, standing near a waterfall, look up.
Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum in The Lost City.
Paramount Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

If you don’t count Minions: The Rise of Gru, and I do not, then the highest-earning comedy of 2022 is The Lost City, a genuinely funny vehicle for Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum. (At one point it was titled The Lost City of D, and the last bit got dropped, more’s the pity.) It handily cracked the top 20 films of the year, with box office returns that just eked over the $100 million mark, the traditional line that separates “pretty successful” from “a hit.” And in 2022, with the theatrical business fighting for survival, that’s no small feat.

But it’s the lone success story this year for the once-vibrant genre of studio comedy. “I’m genuinely worried about movies,” director Greg Mottola told me over Zoom. You almost certainly know Mottola’s work, like the 2007 smash hit Superbad, or the small but beloved 2009 Adventureland. It’s far less likely you saw his very funny movie this year, Confess, Fletch, which reboots the wisecracking detective played by Chevy Chase, with Jon Hamm in the lead role. The movie got a tiny theatrical release, opening on the same day as its on-demand debut; now, you can rent it on a digital platform or watch it on Showtime.

That is, if you know Confess, Fletch exists.

The two men sit at a bar, drinking a beer, in Confess, Fletch.
Yes, John Slattery and Jon Hamm were in a movie together this year. A very funny one!
Paramount Pictures

“The amount of money it takes to promote a movie is so astronomical now that you really can only do it if there’s a great chance of a big return,” Mottola said. He said he doesn’t blame the studio, but finds the situation at large disheartening. It’s not impossible to make a comedy right now — but there are a million other movies out there, too, just giant piles of content for consumption. Studios are only willing to blanket the world with advertising for a specific film if they think they have a slam dunk on their hands.

Judging from domestic box office returns, few comedy slam dunks exist anymore. It’s true that most of the year’s highest-grossing films are, in some respects, comedies; the MCU has flourished by employing many gifted comic actors to deliver quippy lines, and movies like Top Gun: Maverick, Nope, Bullet Train, and Everything Everywhere All At Once certainly have comedic elements. But their leading foot is not comedy — it’s action, or horror, or family drama.

So the next movie on the year-end list that’s both primarily a comedy and intended for an adult audience is Ticket to Paradise, which didn’t manage to make it to $70 million despite starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts in a much-vaunted reunion. After that the list gets stranger: Jackass Forever comes next, with about $57 million, and then way, way down is Marry Me, the Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson movie that barely got past $22 million. Bros, which was heavily marketed, barely cracked $11 million.

That’s a far, far, far cry — a bloodcurdling scream over a distant hilltop, really — from what comedy used to be. The comedy of manners, the screwball comedy, the romantic comedy, the action comedy, and other permutations thereof have been Hollywood bread and butter for a long time. They ebb and flow with the tides of public taste, but they’ve always been designed to make people laugh together.

And that laughter — collective giggle, snort-chuckles, belly laughs that get louder because the guy across the room is howling — is what directors love. “The reason we get into comedy is not so we can go, ‘Oh, I hope people will be amused by what we do,’” Paul Feig, the director of comedy megahits like Bridesmaids and The Heat, told me. “We want to make people laugh. That’s our goal.”

Both Feig and Mottola started their filmmaking careers in a very different era for studio comedies. Bridesmaids and Superbad both changed the comedy game, popularizing a quippy, fast-paced, joke-driven style that’s also raunchy and foul-mouthed and sometimes mixes laughter with groans. You can watch them at home, but everyone knows that it’s much more fun to get hiccups roaring next to your friends and a bunch of strangers.

The two actors stand on a beach, dressed up, looking at one another.
George Clooney and Julia Roberts in Ticket to Paradise.
Universal Pictures

In that way, comedy stands apart from the kind of movie that is annoying to watch in a theater full of texting, talking people. As with horror, if a comedy is working, you know precisely because the crowd starts making noise. That’s the whole idea.

And so the question remains: Why aren’t as many comedies getting greenlit, and why aren’t they doing as well when they do? “Horror films still draw people in; I don’t understand why comedies wouldn’t draw audiences also,” Mottola says. But he’d heard while making Confess, Fletch — a reboot of a popular series for which people maintain nostalgic fondness, starring the lead from a wildly popular TV show — that there just wasn’t an audience for comedy anymore. Meanwhile, horror continues to make huge profits on very low investments — just like comedies used to.

“I think people trust horror more than they trust comedy because they know they’re going to get scared,” Feig said. But the problem may, indeed, be with the audience. “Everybody can agree on what’s scary. Nobody can agree on what’s funny.”

That’s true not just across generational and regional barriers, but across international borders, too — and of course, that’s part of the problem. Hollywood’s 21st century trend has been to spend more and more on making movies, banking on recouping costs from global audiences (especially in markets like China). Humor is one of the hardest things to translate, which might be a factor in joke-driven comedies falling out of favor, replaced by action-comedies that rely on a lot of physical humor. (To be a human is to find a pratfall funny.)

And thus, as Mottola noted, “Something that’s a bit smaller is going to have a really hard time in this day and age. The math doesn’t add up.” And spending a lot of money to market a film like Confess, Fletch, or the legion of low- and mid-budget independent comedies that still get made (like this year’s Fire Island, or the dramedy Cha Cha Real Smooth), just doesn’t pan out. Better to send it to a streamer, where the algorithm might surface it to someone on a chilly Thursday night.

We don’t really know how well comedies are doing on streamers, because the data provided by the streamers themselves is suspect, for a variety of reasons. (For a long time, if you flicked on, say, Kevin Hart’s Me Time and watch it for two minutes and one second, then turn it off, Netflix would count that as a “watch.” Now it reports “hours viewed” — for the top 10, by week.) A whodunit comedy like the Knives Out sequel Glass Onion, which would probably have made a tremendous return in theaters, was only given a one-week limited theatrical release (in which it grossed over $13 million). Maybe the lost revenue from ticket sales will be made up in subscriptions; Netflix certainly hopes it will, and will almost certainly report that it has.

If comedies get made for streamers, and mainly live there in the future, then Mottola and Feig will keep working, at least as long as the streamers last. Feig noted that he’s done work for Netflix (with The School for Good and Evil) and has a deal with Amazon now. Making movies, and making people laugh at home, is better than watching comedy disappear. And both directors have worked extensively in TV — Feig’s credits include shows like Freaks and Geeks and The Office, while Mottola’s include Undeclared and Arrested Development. They know the power of small-screen comedy.

But as Feig points out, you edit a comedy movie designed for the communal watching experience differently from a TV comedy, in part because the laughs land differently. To him, it would be a massive shame for that communal laugh to fade away. “What you lose is the group experience. During the pandemic, there was this feeling that we don’t need to go out anymore — we can just watch this at home,” he said. But replicating the laughing-with-others experience of comedy is still important. “It’s why the biggest shows on network TV are still the ones with the laugh tracks,” he points out — and he’s right.

A photo of the couple embracing.
Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson in Marry Me.
Universal Pictures

Yet the future of streamers is itself rocky, Mottola notes. “Is streaming even profitable?” he asked. “In the long run, the music industry has been devastated by streaming music. Are we just destroying movies the same way, by making so much content and thus devaluing everything?” Can the cost of a streaming service really replace the revenue generated by ticket sales? And will people ever really want to return?

For comedy lovers, that prospect is the opposite of funny. Yet there could be hope. A movie like Everything Everywhere All At Once made an enormous profit mainly on the strength of word of mouth; one imagines that the same word of mouth for Ticket to Paradise, which is not in the end very funny, may account for its mediocre return. All it really takes for a genre to be revived is a couple of surprising hits. Comedy is resilient, and it’s not dead yet.

But it’s certainly flailing, and with theaters struggling to survive, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next. Maybe the future of the theatrical comedy is the action-comedy, or the quippy superhero movie, or the campy horror-comedy. And maybe that’s fine. The future of theatrical comedy seems bleak — but if you love it, you know you want it to survive.