Today’s post is the first of two looking at comedies. The article was growing to gargantuan size, so this post will give an overview of the market, and Tuesday’s post will offer some advice on how to make a good comedy.

Take a look at the cinema screens this summer and going to head to head with the superhero movies, you’ll find a bunch of R-rated comedies. Jump 22 Street, Sex Tape and Tammy are all gearing up for release. The studios are embracing the genre. Why? Because comedies have the capacity to punch above their weight and make bank at the box office.

From a studio perspective, comedies are relatively cheap to make. They don’t need VFX, explosions, action, green screen or hours of animation. Instead, get a smart script with potty mouths and profanity, tap up a talented cast from Hollywood’s rotating stable of funny men and women, and craft an iconic moment to rival Something About Mary’s hair gel scene, The 40 Year Old Virgin’s waxing extravaganza or American Pie’s pie moment. Successful smash hits make their budget back several times over and can generate a franchise a studio can spin out for years.

Let’s look at some numbers.

The Hangover

The Hangover

Budget: $35 million

Domestic Box Office: $277 million

Worldwide Box Office: $467 million. Over 13 times the budget



Budget: $32.5 million

Domestic Box Office: $169 million

Worldwide Box Office: $288 million. Over 8 times the budget.

Bad Neighbours


Budget: $18 million

Domestic Box Office: $116 million*

Worldwide Box Office: $184 million*. Over 10 times the budget

*Figures as of 26th May 2014 per Box Office Mojo

Comedy tends to perform well as a genre. Take a look at Stephen Follows’ genre stats for the UK from 2002 – 2012 based on BFI research. Click for larger versions.




Comedy leads the pack on box office gross and physical sales and rentals.

What does that mean for independent filmmakers? It’s easy to look at these stats and think comedy’s the way forward. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

The numbers look good, but the studio successes and big name indies are skewing these stats. It’s hard out there for indie filmmakers. We’re not in days of Clerks any more, where a micro-budget comedy with no cast can break out to international success.

Traditional distributors want big name cast and high production values. If you don’t have cast, then major festivals wins and critical support might tip the balance, but there’s no guarantee. Distributors are extremely risk averse when it comes to low budget comedies, and you’re likely to face rejection.

Comedies are also a tough sell internationally. Your film might do well domestically, but completely fail to translate and sell in international markets.

Like drama, you can make a good comedy, but without the marketing hook of a well known cast or critical success, you’ll find it hard to get distribution. Self distribution might be your best option.

To get a current snapshot of how comedy’s performing, I went through the BFI weekend box office figures from 4th -6th January 2013 to last weekend, 23rd-25th May 2014. During that period, 84 comedies were released theatrically, excluding romantic comedies and Indian films. Some trends emerge.

R-Rated Studio Breakouts

Bad Neighbours, This Is The End, We Are The Millers and The Heat

The Sequels

This Is 40, Jack Ass Presents: Bad Grandpa, The Hangover 3, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Scary Movie 5

Smart Comedy/Indie/Director Led

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Seven Psychopaths, Frances Ha, Bernie, Drinking Buddies, Sightseers,  Frank.

Foreign Language/Arthouse

Cupcakes, I’m So Excited, Populaire

TV Based Adaptations

The Harry Hill Movie, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, The Hardy Bucks 

Targeting Older Audiences

Song For Marion, Quartet, Grudge Match, Las Vegas, Le Weekend

Targeting Female Audiences

Pitch Perfect, Powder Room

There was also a raft of British indies released at a range of budget levels with varying degrees of box office success. Films with recognisable cast performed much stronger than those without and most low budget indies really struggled with returns, but some interesting case studies emerged from the pack for low budget producers.

Powder Room

A rare success story. Powder Room is a micro budget comedy made good. Shot in 19 days, on a budget of £175,000, by first time director MJ Delaney, Powder Room is based on a play When Women Wee by Rachel Hirons. Vertigo distributed the film in the UK and Universal took worldwide rights in Cannes last year, immediately recouping all investment on the film before its opening weekend.

Why did it get picked up? Powder Room hits the zeitgeist. It’s a bawdy female comedy in the vein of Bridesmaids and Girls, with a focus on female friendship. It’s well made, with a great central performance from Sheridan Smith. It breaks the rules – shot in one location, no big names, but it’s funny, fresh and happens to be what the market wants right now. It also comes from producer Damien Jones who made a few films you might know – The Iron Lady, Belle. Kidulthood.

Papadopoulos & Sons

Director Marcus Markou became the patron saint of self distribution, with his release of his feel good family comedy Papadopoulos & Sons. After hitting the wall with rejections from UK distributors, Markou decided to self distribute and eventually partnered with Cineworld for a theatrical release.

Building an effective marketing campaign from the ground up, targeting Greek Orthodox churches, fish and chip shop owners and using Facebook and Twitter, Markou showed it’s possible to create your own audience for your film, leading to a seven week run in the cinemas, and the second highest per screen average of any film in its opening weekend, out performing studio releases like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Trance.

The success of his theatrical release opened up doors for DVD, TV and VOD deals and offers a map for anyone considering self distribution. For more information on his experience, check out the case study in the Film Collective’s How To Sell Your Film Outside the U.S. which is available as a free digital download.

Borrowed Time

Borrowed Time was the directorial debut of Jules Bishop and was part of Film London’ Microwave scheme, which finances micro budget feature films, supporting emerging filmmaking talent. It was shot in 18 days with a budget of £120,000. The film tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a teenager, who has fallen into crime, and the curmudgeonly pensioner he tried to rob.

Borrowed Time won Best of the Fest at Edinburgh, but the filmmakers couldn’t find a distributor willing to take the chance on a theatrical release. Believing in their film, the Borrowed Time team opted to take control of their own destiny with a direct distribution model.

They raised £20,000 through Kickstarter to finance P&A ( Prints and Advertising) for their theatrical release and received an additional £25,000 from the BFI New Models distribution fund and £5000 from BBC Films, resulting in a total budget of £50,000 for distribution.

They brought together a team of advisers including Oscar winning producer Mia Bays, David Shear from Shear Entertainment, former Head of Distribution at Revolver Entertainment, Organic Marketing and High Point Media Group who handled UK DVD and VOD and international sales.

They tested out new distribution models with their film. They became the first UK release using Tugg, a cinema on demand platform, which allows consumers to create a screening in their local cinema once a minimum audience through a social media booking platform. They opted for a multiple platform release, with only a 10 day theatrical window before release on DVD, Sky and VOD.

The film received a positive response in its Sky screening tour, playing in 25 venues, but it ran into challenges with momentum and distribution. The reduced theatrical window excluded the film from release with many cinemas who refused to play the film. This wasn’t able to be counterbalanced by Tugg, who didn’t have strong relationships with cinemas in the UK at the time and only generated one screening. The gap between the initial Kickstarter campaign and actual release also meant that excitement and buzz about the film had been diluted over time, losing potential audience.

Overall, the film received £7,245 in theatrical revenues, £3,998 from gross DVD sales, £5,858 from VOD and a license fee from Sky for TV rights. Although the returns are lower than the filmmakers hoped, they’re positive about the experience and how much they learned about audience development, digital distribution and international sales. They are handling sales on their second film, Appropriate Behaviour, which premiered at Sundance.

More information about their experience can be found in the BFI Insight Report on the film.

Hat tip to Stephen Follows for his stats and input on this post.

Click here for the second half on comedy. 

Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.

Picture Credit: Bridesmaids

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