Comedic timing at box office may pay off this summer

Spider-Man and X-Men's superpowers may not be enough to conquer the movie scene this summer. Instead, industry watchers see the potential for frat bros and Arizona farmers to dominate.

Summer movie season—typically measured from early May through end of August—tends to be packed with action films. But industry experts are eyeing comedies in the pipeline this summer with the potential to rule the screens and bring in the big bucks.

Still from movie, "A Million Ways to Die in the West."
Source: A Million Ways to Die in the West

"Last summer, the top seven grossing films were action films or animated films. You have to go to No. 8 to find a comedy," said Dave Karger, senior chief correspondent at Fandango. "You won't have to look that far down [this year]."

21 Century Fox's "The Heat" was the highest grossing comedy of summer 2013 and brought in $159 million domestically. But it trailed far behind Disney's "Iron Man 3" and Universal Pictures' "Despicable Me 2," each grossing $409 million and $368 million in the U.S., according to Rentrak.

According to online ticket service Fandango, there are 20 live-action comedies in the line-up this summer—nearly double the number from a year ago.

Karger noted the theaters are seeing what he calls the "Bridesmaids" effect. In the movie industry, it takes about three years to see the effects of a game-changing movie because of the amount of time it takes to develop and produce films.

Three summers after the "Bridesmaids" smash, theaters are opening the door to a rash of similar R-rated, raunchy comedies even though the conventional wisdom has been to stick with PG-13 comedies during the summer to attract younger viewers.

Studios may be banking on more comedies also because they're applying takeaways from previous seasons.

"Studios are starting to figure out that summer can be a land of opportunities for comedies," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak.

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Dergarabedian noted that comedies have appealing profit margins compared with action films because they cost less to make: "If you have the right comedy at the right time in summer, it can be hugely profitable." They also provide a break to summer viewers who may feel burned out from typical action blockbusters.

SnagFilms managing editor Michael Pielocik agreed: "It doesn't feel like a superhero when you have 40 superheroes [that] are kind of interchangeable at this point." What is making comedies increasingly appealing is that they present new voices and people to the floor every year, he added.

And it looks like this summer comedy crush is here to stay. Dergarabedian says comedies are also increasingly becoming successful franchises overseas.

"The idea used to be that comedy wouldn't translate, but comedy brands can translate," he said, pointing to international successes of "Hangover" sequels and "Ted."

Best blockbuster bets for the summer

Though the summer movie season is just starting to kick off, experts are already naming a few favorites among the handful of comedies: Universal Picture's "Neighbors" and "A Million Ways to Die in the West"; Warner Bros' "Tammy"; and "22 Jump Street" from Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

"'Neighbors' will be one of the biggest surprises of the year for many," said Scott Pierce, managing editor of Moviepilot. The film, about a young family living next to a fraternity house, is a "surprising movie with a lot of heart."

"Tammy," featuring Melissa McCarthy who is becoming the queen of summer comedies, also has the potential to perform well commercially and critically, Pierce added.

Sequels are usually a big trend in summer, and comedies are no exception. "22 Jump Street" with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill comes after "21 Jump Street" scored a hit in 2012.

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Outside the comedy realm, screens will be playing a wider range of genres, which contrasts with 2013's glut of blockbusters. For instance, there are more drama, suspense and horror films this summer, according to data from Rentrak. Syracuse University's Robert Thompson says historically, a wide range of genres leads to higher ticket sales, but how they will play out depends on quality of movies and whether people like them.

And this summer is also missing the "biggest earning franchises of recent years" such as "Avengers/Iron Man," "Batman" and Pixar films, according to a recent note from Cowen & Co.

This does not bode well for box office. "We think the troubling indicators we have seen in domestic attendance over the past three years could finally manifest in a major decline in box office performance," analysts wrote in the note. "We are projecting summer box office roughly to be down—11 percent vs. 2013." Cowen defines summer movie season from May to July.

Karger of Fandango also pointed that while comedies will outpace last summer's box office, the overall box office isn't likely to beat last year's record of $4.8 billion.

"I think last year's box office was a little bit more promising than this summer in terms of really big, potential blockbuster smashes," he said. "But it won't be a disaster."