In the battle of Good Boys vs. Booksmart, is it really as simple as the ticket-buying influence of the teenage boy?
In 2007, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg showed just how much they’d learned from their mentor, Judd Apatow. Just as he’d done with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, they took a well-worn genre and breathed new life into it by trojan horsing some genuine drama and thoughtfulness into what otherwise appeared to be a raunchy comedy. Based both on the teen sex comedies which multiplied like jackrabbits in the 80s and their own experiences growing up, Rogen and Goldberg’s Superbad is both a throwback night-of-hijinks story about a bunch of idiots trying to lose their virginity AND the story of how hard it is for guys to say goodbye before heading off to college.
Like Superbad But Younger and More Innocent
Over a decade later, Rogen and Goldberg have done it again. Through their roles as executive producers and delegators on Universal’s Good Boys, a movie written and directed by Lee Eisenberg and Gee Stupnitsky, they have taken the same exact story structure and themes of Superbad and transposed them to an even younger set of characters, this time focusing on 12-year-olds instead of high school seniors and chronicling their fears of growing apart during middle school instead of literally moving apart for college. (Also, instead of trying to lose their virginity their goal is to have their first kiss with a girl, or at least that’s the goal of Jacob Tremblay’s character.)
The result is a movie generally liked by critics (89% RottenTomatoes) and audiences (B+ Cinemascore), enough to make it just the second original film to top the weekend box office this year. (The other one: Jordan Peele’s Us.)
Moreover, Good Boys became the first R-Rated comedy to debut at #1 since Melissa McCarthy’s The Boss did it three years ago, and it also enjoyed the biggest opening for any 2019 comedy – R-Rated, original, sequel, or otherwise – other than Madea’s Family Funeral, which debuted to $27.1 million back in March.
We Like to Laugh, But Do We Really Need to Pay for It?
This comes at a particularly perilous time for the American comedy, a once sure-thing genre which can now only ever aspire to “just okay” business (Isn’t it Romantic, Little, What Men Want, The Hustle) since the new default is to simply bomb (Stuber, Booksmart, Long Shot, Late Night, The Art of Self-Defense). I wrote about this in far more detail two years ago, and the trends have mostly stayed the same:
People didn’t stop liking comedies, they simply stopped thinking comedies are worth paying to see in theaters. You can make that same exact argument about pretty much every single film genre other than superheroes and horror and with rare exception, the recent box office numbers would probably back you up. As a result, most successful American comedies now top out in the $50m-$60m domestically and can bottom out as low as $4m. What used to be considered underperformance is now the norm.
Like Superbad But Female
Yet, when Booksmart flopped earlier this year there was something about its failure which particularly gnawed at the internet. How could the twin forces of good – Booksmart is an original film in the age of IP and is directed and written by women at a time when we’re meant to support diversity – lead to little more than a shrug from ticket-buying audiences? Despite its near-universal critical acclaim (97% RottenTomatoes), Booksmart only mustered a $6.9m opening over Memorial Day weekend en route to a $22.6m cumulative haul.
By comparison, Good Boys has already topped that cumulative total in its first 7 days of release. So, WTF? What kind of world is this where Booksmart does the Superbad thing with teenage girls and gets ignored by everyone other than #FilmTwitter and Good Boys does it with 12-year-old boys and gets rewarded? Is this simply a further confirmation that the film industry is run by teenage boys as well as those who remain teenage boys at heart?
What About Blockers?
Not necessarily. If that was true, how do you explain Blockers, the 2018 comedy which also counts Rogen and Goldberg among its producers and ended up being directed by a woman, Kay Cannon? Like Booksmart, its a gender-swapped version of a typical high school sex comedy but updated to 2018 norms with the added layer that the girls’ parents are desperately trying to stop them from getting to prom and fulfilling their pact to finally punch their v-card. Released wide by Universal – say, didn’t they also distribute Good Boys? -in early April, Blockers did fairly well for a comedy by today’s standards, grossing four times more than its budget and three times as much as Booksmart domestically.
Release Windows Still Matter
It’s a reminder that release windows still matter. Booksmart never made sense as a superwide Memorial Day release because comedies – not just indie teen sex comedies but any comedy, period – have almost never worked in that window. Of the top 35-Memorial Day releases, only 5 of them can be categorized as comedies – The Hangover II (#7), Bruce Almighty (#11), The Hangover III (#24), Sex and the City 2 (#30) and Notting Hill (#35). It’s even worse than that, though. If you limit the list to just movies released since the early 2000s when the start of the summer movie season switched from Memorial Day to the start of May, the list of successful Memorial Day comedies dwindles to 5 (sorry, Notting Hill).
Not that Hollywood hasn’t tried. The Rock’s failed Baywatch relaunch and Blended – the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore studio-funded African vacation posing as a movie – each tried to defy history as Memorial Day comedies or at least action-comedies, and they both turned into career misfires for their big-name stars. If Booksmart was going to have success there, it might only have been as a platform release playing in LA and NY to build word of mouth in advance of a wider release further down the road.
Good Boys, by contrast, was wide-released in the third weekend of August. Here’s a partial list of some recent box office champions of that particular window: Crazy Rich Asians, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Let’s Be Cops, and, yes, if you go back far enough, Superbad. Plus, Sausage Party and We’re the Millers turned into hits as second-weekend-of-August releases. That doesn’t mean comedies of any kind are bulletproof in this window – sorry, American Ultra – but it does suggest they have more of a fighting chance. As everyone heads back to school and mourns the end of the summer, audiences appear to be in the mood for one last laugh at the movies if the right film and marketing campaign comes along.
Note: Yes, Good Boys and Booksmart used the exact same pop song in their respective trailers.
For Good Boys, that campaign was initially a South Parkian “look at these kids saying the dirtiest things.” It’s an age-old gimmick that once worked for Bad News Bears and still holds its shock value today, and to Good Boys credit, the laughs in the movie come not from the kids cussing but from how ill-informed they are about sex and adulthood. They overcompensate for how little they actually know and cave to peer pressure before inevitably getting to their own “to thy own self be true” moment. Tastes vary as to whether it’s a style of comedy which will work for you, but I got a couple of laughs out of it.
Universal sold us a Superbad-like movie we already knew but in a way we’d never quite seen before, and considering the way kids seem to be growing up faster than ever an R-Rated comedy about a group of stressed-out 12-year-olds isn’t the barrel-scraping move it might seem. Nearly 60% of the opening weekend ticket buyers were categorized as 25 or older. I do wonder how many of them were parents taking their tweens despite the R-Rating? And how many were people old enough to fondly remember a time when an R-Rated comedy like this used to flourish?
Anecdotally, my nephew just turned 12, and all of his friends are dying to see this movie. Picking up on that, Universal launched a last-second marketing campaign comically emphasizing that the actual stars of the movie are technically too young to see it:
Annapurna and United Artists Releasing probably thought they had something similar with Booksmart. It’s a familiar coming of age story just updated to 2019, hopefully striking a chord with the kids of today, particularly the girls who don’t always get to see themselves represented. Surely all of those teenagers would be dying to see the movie.
Instead, most of them don’t even seem to know it exists. Upon Booksmart‘s release, much of the discussion about it online has been siphoned off into splinter arguments about whether Annapurna’s “finally, a teen comedy for everyone” marketing vibe truly understood that Booksmart has a real blind eye when it comes to class and, to a lesser extent, race.
The Ringer’s Big Picture podcast offered their take on it at the time, and hosts Amanda Dobbins and Sean Fennessey concluded Booksmart – a movie which is very much in active conversation with its genre predecessors – doesn’t really connect with teens but instead with adults who remember the teen comedies of old and can both nostalgically appreciate and overly intellectualize any modern iterations of the genre. The actual teenagers of today, however, are getting their comedy from entirely different places and will only ever encounter Booksmart if it ends up on Netflix.
Whether teens, adults, or a mixture of both, Booksmart would have certainly found a bigger audience outside of Memorial Day – not necessarily Good Boys big, but still bigger than what it got. Annapurna thought it could launch a counter-programming comedy in Endgame’s shadow. Just ask Seth Rogen’s starring-feature Long Shot how well competing against Endgame worked out for him.
As Always, History Will Be the Ultimate Judge
Oh, well. Box office is always just a small part of the story, an of-the-moment concern which falls away as audiences find their way to movies through various different formats. Perhaps Booksmart will someday be listed with Lady Bird as one of the great coming of age stories directed by a woman. Probably not, but who knows.
Maybe Good Boys will be just a footnote in the larger story of Superbad’s long-lasting influence while also providing several fun anecdotes in some THR or Vanity Fair cover story about Seth Rogen’s under-the-radar success as a movie and TV producer. Or maybe we’ll have to suffer through an inevitable series of lesser knock-offs.
Either way, Booksmart Olivia Wilde already has her next director’s job set up. It’s a comedy for Universal – ya know, the same studio behind Superbad, Blockers, and Good Boys. I’m guesing they’ll be better at helping her find an audience.