Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Nothing Funny About Comedy: Funny Films are Starting to Fizzle

This section is where I give serious essays on comedy.

Comedy Central will begin to broadcast its web shorts on television in a late-night series called "Web Shows." Between the success of "The Office" on iTunes, TBS's Super Deluxe and this, television is adapting very well to the Web revolution. How are comedy films doing?

In the LA Times, Neal Gabler writes:

Today, movies just don't seem to matter in the same way — not to the general public and not to the high culture either, where a Pauline Kael review in the New Yorker could once ignite an intellectual firestorm. There aren't any firestorms now, and there is no director who seems to have his finger on the national pulse the way that Steven Spielberg or George Lucas did in the 1970s and 1980s. People don't talk about movies the way they once did. It would seem absurd to say, as Kael once did, that she knew whether she would like someone by the films he or she liked. Once at the center, movies increasingly sit on the cultural margins.

This is definitely true about comedic cinema. Last week's box office sent a very strange message to film comedians: straight-up comedies like Reno 911!: Miami will place at #4 whereas horror movies with a (typically) comedic lead will have the highest debut of the week.

The lack of buzz is even more obvious when we look at last year's domestic grosses: the highest-ranked adult live-action comedy was Talladega Nights at number 12. Funny as it was, it did not crack the top ten and, compared to the watercooler buzz over Crying Wrestling Fan or even the latest episode of "The Office," Talladega Nights provoked less idle chatter. The most buzzed-about comedy of last year - Borat - was surpassed only by its own guerilla promotional campaign, which was far more interesting than the film itself (no scene in Borat will top his march to the White House gates to speak to the President of Kazakhstan - a publicity stunt that was all over the Web).

So how can Hollywood catch up? By going digital. As someone who aspired to be a motion picture director from 1997 to 2002, I certainly agree that film is the most beautiful visual medium available. But if the '70s was the "Me Decade," this is the "Me, Myself and I" decade, with more and more brats uploading their own comedic shows and sketches onto YouTube. If Hollywood were to go digital, some interesting scenarios might open up.

Let's say a movie house has a theater open from 12 AM to 1:30 AM for an amateur comedy (an Olde English film, say) that has gotten the most buzz at a Channel 101-style contest (one for amateur movies instead of shows). One theater might mean nothing, but what if it's the UA theater in Union Square and all the bloggers are buzzing about it? It might not go into wide release, but limited release would be a possibility. Considering the budget for a cheap digital film, the movie could be very profitable for the filmakers, the theaters and the distribution companies. After the successful digital indie debut, perhaps Olde English could ink a deal with Warner Brothers and make a more professional studio film. This would be one way that film and web could have better synergy.

This scenario has a factor that was vital to Hollywood fifty years ago and is all but dead in Tinseltown today: word of mouth. There was a time when a Pauline Kael review would have people talking. The promotional blitz has replaced word of mouth. The other day, I encountered a talking Norbit ad at the Parkside men's room. One more Pabst Blue Ribbon and I would have ripped it off the wall and thrown in the toilet (there's a time and a place to hear Eddie Murphy sing a Pussycat Dolls song).

Studios fear that switching from film to digital will make piracy easier. Parodoxically, piracy should be the least of Hollywood's worries. At least piracy indicates that people still want to watch movies.

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