Nobody goes to see comedies at the movies anymore

Comedy, like Adam Sandler, may be moving to Netflix.
Comedy, like Adam Sandler, may be moving to Netflix.
Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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Action movies are killing at the box office. Comedies are dying.

In 2018, the most successful comedy at the US box office was Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart’s Night School, which made more than $77 million in US revenue and another $25 million internationally. Though poorly reviewed, the movie earned a healthy profit. Yet compared to the successful comedies of the past several decades, its earnings were a pittance.

According to the website The Numbers, which in addition to collecting box office statistics also assigns movies a genre, Night School is only the 169th highest grossing comedy in US history. Home AloneMeet the Fockers, and The Hangover are the three biggest comedy hits—all with over $270 million in US revenue. (These numbers are not adjusted for inflation; if they were, Night School would place even lower).

It’s a sign of the times. In 2018, only 6.9% of North American movie revenue came from comedies. The Numbers collected data on each genre’s share going back to 1995, and that 6.9% is the lowest percentage for comedies on record. As recently as 2006, more than 21% of revenue came from comedies.

So what’s going on? A few things.

For one, action and adventure movies have taken over cinema. With better home-entertainment options, studios really have to give people a reason to go to the theater. Big action movies tend to have an advantage on big screens, while it isn’t all that different to watch a comedy or drama from the couch.

Also, streaming is taking a bite out of the comedy box office. Adam Sandler, the most bankable Hollywood comedy star, has had an deal with Netflix to release his movies on the site since 2014. Netflix brags of the incredible streaming success of Sandler’s films, claiming that subscribers have watched 500 million hours of him on the site. Many of his movies would have been in the theaters if not for the deal, and could have boosted comedy’s share of the box office. Other popular comedians, like Master of None’s Aziz Ansari, might have taken a stab at mainstream movies if streaming were not such a viable option.

Finally, there is globalization. Comedies don’t necessarily translate well abroad, and with a growing share of overall revenues coming from outside the US, studios are increasingly interested in making movies that Chinese and Indian moviegoers can relate to. The Rock’s action moves are easier to sell in Asia than Will Ferrel’s jokes.