LOS ANGELES — Raunchy comedy is having a rough run at the box office.
Moviegoers turned out in strong numbers over the weekend for the well-reviewed fifth chapter in Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible” series, which sold about $56 million in tickets. But it was an unexpected misfire that caught Hollywood’s attention: “Vacation” (Warner Bros.) became the fourth R-rated comedy of the summer to receive the cold shoulder from a wide audience.
There has been a lot of shock. Where is the awe?
“Vacation,” marketed with images of its stars smeared in feces, took in $14.9 million, for a total of $21.2 million since arriving on Wednesday, or about 35 percent less than most box-office analysts had expected. Warner Bros. and its New Line unit decided to release “Vacation” at the end of July because they had success in 2013 on a roughly similar date, when their R-rated “We’re the Millers” collected $37.9 million over its first five days.
“It’s lighter than what we had thought, no question about it, but younger audiences are responding,” said Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. He noted that ticket sales increased from Thursday to Friday and again from Friday to Saturday. “That means word of mouth is great,” he said.
The underwhelming results for “Vacation,” written and directed by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley, follow poor turnout for R-rated summer comedies like “Entourage,” “Magic Mike XXL” and “Ted 2.” Released in March, the R-rated “Get Hard” did only modest business, especially for a Will Ferrell vehicle. “Hot Tub Time Machine 2,” which also carried an R rating, bombed in February.
That run has left Hollywood scratching its head. What’s happening? And what does it mean for R-rated comedies in the pipeline?
Start with quality. Most of the comedies that have missed the box-office mark also received largely negative reviews from critics. (“Vacation” generated reviews that were 76 percent negative, according to the website Rotten Tomatoes.) Notably, the two recent R-rated comedies that have succeeded — “Trainwreck,” starring Amy Schumer, and “Spy,” with Melissa McCarthy — both received excellent reviews.
Studio executives were also using the word “derivative” over the weekend to explain the rough patch. To fill theaters at a time when overall entertainment options continue to multiply, films must have a sense of urgency. The first “Ted,” for instance, succeeded because it felt fresh and ticket buyers responded to its unlikeliest-of-friendships theme. Were audiences crying out for a sequel? No.
Some theater owners pointed to a glut of R-rated comedies. Exhibitors in recent years have all but begged studios to make more PG-13 comedies, which they believe have a better shot at attracting a wide audience. “Pitch Perfect 2,” which carried that lighter rating, took in $183.8 million in North America this summer.
But studios remain focused on young ticket buyers — even though data from the Motion Picture Association of America indicates that older moviegoers are more loyal customers — and that leads to raunchy comedies, especially at a time when the limits of tastefulness continue to be tested culturewide. Hollywood’s top comedy writers and directors also tend to want to push boundaries: It’s not cool to dream up PG-13 or PG jokes and scenarios.
New Line considered aiming “Vacation” at a lighter rating, but veered toward vulgarity after its “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” which was rated PG-13, bombed in 2013. Crude “Vacation” jokes and imagery (a lead character covered in cow entrails, an extremely foul-mouthed child) could alienate older fans of the “Vacation” franchise, but it might at least make the movie connect with younger audiences, the studio decided. Aiming for the middle might miss everyone.
“Vacation,” starring Ed Helms as a Walley World-bound Rusty Griswold, cost about $31 million to make. “R-rated comedies go through ups and downs just like any other subgenre,” said Phil Contrino, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “Does this recent string of disappointment mean they are not viable anymore? Of course not.”
As the Griswolds took their lumps, Paramount was jumping for joy over “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” (coincidentally, rated PG-13). Paramount, which badly needed a hit, said on Sunday that the film had collected an additional $65 million overseas, with “Rogue Nation” performing better than its series predecessor, “Ghost Protocol,” in important markets like Britain, Mexico and South Korea.
Imax sales for the film, starring Tom Cruise and the relatively unknown Rebecca Ferguson, were strong around the world.
The better-than-expected turnout for “Rogue Nation,” which cost Paramount and Skydance Media an estimated $150 million to make, catapults its director, Christopher McQuarrie, to the A-list and shows the continued popularity of Mr. Cruise, particularly overseas. It may also have minted a star in Ms. Ferguson, who generated notable social media chatter for her performance.