Getting comedies onto the big screen has become a sobering business in Hollywood.
Once one of the movie industry's most successful genres, with stars such as Eddie Murphy and Will Ferrell boasting $20-million paychecks, comedy is now among the most challenging propositions for the studios that bankroll them.
The fact that they typically aren't popular overseas -- where culturally specific humor can be difficult to translate -- has become a larger obstacle in an increasingly global film business. But even more significant is that comedies have been hit particularly hard by the dramatic slump in sales of DVDs, which have long accounted for the majority of profits on most movies.
DVD revenue for the average comedy plummeted 63 percent from 2006 to 2010, according to research firm IHS Screen Digest, compared with a 39 percent decline in the overall market.
"A lot of the income generated from comedies was because people were buying an enormous amount of DVDs," said Judd Apatow, one of the most powerful producers in the slumping comedy business. "That has slowed down, and where it affects us is 'What are the budgets of these movies?' "
Just a few years ago, live-action studio comedies frequently cost more than $50 million, with much of that money going to pay big-name stars and directors. The new model for Hollywood is the recently released hit "Bad Teacher." Sony Pictures spent only $19 million to produce the film. Star Cameron Diaz took an upfront payment of $1 million compared with the roughly $8 million she collected for co-starring with Tom Cruise in last year's "Knight and Day," according to a person with knowledge of the actress' compensation, who requested anonymity because of the privacy of the contract.
"Because of the weakening DVD market, even when we love the material it doesn't make sense for us to make a creatively risky or daring comedy for much more than $25 million," said Doug Belgrad, president of Sony's main film division, Columbia Pictures.
The only other option, studio executives say, is to aim for more money overseas. Animated family comedies such as "Rio" and "Kung Fu Panda" remain hugely popular around the world, but live-action ones are a tougher sell. That means filmmakers need to include creative elements in their comedies -- be that in the casting, storytelling or setting -- that are specifically designed to appeal to foreign audiences.
With this weekend's release of "Zookeeper," Sony is hoping star Kevin James will buck his weak track record overseas because he's surrounded with computer-generated talking animals, which traditionally have been popular internationally.
At Paramount Pictures, the studio is prioritizing comedic concepts that can play well abroad. Next May's "The Dictator," for instance, features "Borat" star Sacha Baron Cohen as a Saddam Hussein-like autocrat.
"We're trying to find comedies that travel internationally, which tend to be more physical or situational," said Adam Goodman, president of Paramount Film Group. "Comedy based on speech patterns and jokes have a harder time overseas."
Comedy can still bring surprise breakout hits, such as this year's "Bridesmaids" and 2009's "The Hangover." The sequel "The Hangover Part II" is so far the highest-grossing movie of the year in the U.S. and Canada, with $245 million at the domestic box office.