Why Did So Many Comedies Fail At The Box Office This Summer?

The past summer has been very tough on comedies, with a number of films failing at the box office after premiering to strong buzz. In a summer where only a handful of major releases truly broke the bank, it's sign of how the movie landscape has shifted.

Here's how every mainstream and mid-major comedy released this summer has performed at the box office and on Rotten Tomatoes as of August 2019:

  • Long Shot – $30,316,271 (81%, 270 reviews)
  • The Hustle – $35,417,038 (14%, 147 reviews)
  • Poms – $13,361,124 (34%, 79 reviews)
  • Booksmart – $22,680,962 (97%, 313 reviews)
  • Late Night – $15,482,660 (80%, 265 reviews)
  • Men In Black: International – $79,538,167 (22%, 293 reviews)
  • Shaft – $21,360,215 (32%, 114 reviews)
  • The Dead Don't Die – $6,563,605 (54%, 247 reviews)
  • Yesterday – $71,836,605 (63%, 306 reviews)
  • Stuber – $22,302,501 (42%, 201 reviews)
  • The Farewell – $13,200,452 (99%, 221 reviews)
  • The Art of Self-Defense – $2,410,914 (83%, 143 reviews)
  • The Peanut Butter Falcon – $583,876 (94%, 83 reviews)
  • Good Boys – $26,669,375 (78%, 183 reviews)
  • Where'd You Go, Bernadette – $4,428,287 (47%, 128 reviews)
  • There have been a few smaller indie comedies released this summer. These titles include Plus One (90%, 48 reviews, no box office reported), Being Frank, ($67,343 in 13 theaters, 33%, 39 reviews) and Sword of Trust ($314,005 in 78 theaters, 93%, 85 reviews). The Peanut Butter Falcon, a crowd-pleasing comedy/drama, only opened in limited release but is performing well with critics. For the purposes of this article, I'm not looking at the animated comedy films or family-focused films that blend audiences.

    It started in May with the release of Long Shot. Not even critical acclaim could save the film starring Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron.  Things didn't get any easier at the end of the month when Booksmart came out. Olivia Wilde's feature directorial debut is one of the best films about female friendship in years and the reviews were consistently raves. And yet Booksmart struggled immediately upon release. Factoring in the Memorial Day holiday, the film would crack the top ten but couldn't even crack $10 million during the opening weekend. There's a lot that is going to be said about Booksmart's theatrical performance. Could the marketing have been better? Certainly. Opening against Aladdin no doubt hurt the film's potential. The biggest thing perhaps might be the fact that the film should have platformed its release.

    A lot of May can really be summed up by saying that Avengers: Endgame sucked all the air out of the room. While Booksmart struggled to find an audience, the Russo Brothers were telling their Twitter followers to see Avengers: Endgame for the fourth time because of air conditioning. But really, the numbers go beyond just Endgame. Disney films – and to an extent, Spider-Man: Far From Home because of the MCU connection – have controlled the box office.

    But even going beyond May, the negative reviews ultimately hurt the fourth Men in Black film. While many films would love to gross almost $80 million at the domestic box office, the film did $100 million less than the third installment. Meanwhile, another franchise couldn't get out of the gates.  Name recognition couldn't even save the poorly reviewed Shaft. The film's domestic gross as of August 22 is still lower than opening weekend for the 2000 release.

    The Farewell didn't open in theaters until July 12 and hasn't expanded beyond 861 theaters. A24 acquired the Awkwafina-starring indie out of Sundance. They've platformed the release so as to build an audience. Opening wide a week later was The Art of Self-Defense. The film was well-received by critics but hasn't expanded beyond 550 screens. Similarly, The Dead Don't Die premiered during Cannes and was released in June. As of now, the film hasn't expanded beyond 690 theaters.

    While films struggled at the box office, Always Be My Maybe was tearing it up on Netflix. One of the things I remember seeing upon the film's Netflix launch was many people talking about the Keanu Reeves cameo as the boyfriend of Ali Wong's character. This garnered so much attention online that the IndieWire Critics Survey even addressed the best movie cameos. Perhaps this is the future of comedies: streaming, where they don't have to compete with superhero tentpoles.

    If we're looking at Twitter followings, Booksmart is north of 10K, but Good Boys still brought in more money. What does this say about the social media following? The honest answer is that I don't know. Seth Rogen has a few million followers but Long Shot will still bring in less money than Good Boys when all is said and done. Point Grey Pictures was a part of both productions so they still win.

    If there's some fallout from Late Night flopping, it's going to be the fact that Amazon Studios is changing up their entire thought process. Rather than look like the anti-Netflix, Amazon is making moves out of the same playbook. Two major awards contenders will have a shorter release before going to Prime Video. We know that Netflix doesn't really release their numbers but will Amazon let us know the numbers?

    Every time I look at how comedies did this summer, I keep going back to Avengers: Endgame. While comedies struggled, Disney was tearing it up. The company has made it an event to go to their films, especially with the summer movies. We've seen it for all of them, even the The Lion King, which did not turn out to be a hit with critics. Mixed to poor reviews did not stop fans from seeing the film.

    We'll still be talking about Booksmart in ten years but sadly, the film just couldn't find room to breathe in a box office environment that now favors making films an event.