NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Is it a coincidence that the name of Will Ferrell’s character in “The Other Guys” is Gamble?
With his newest big-budget comedy hitting theaters Friday, the A-list funnyman is betting he can deliver not just another hit, but one gigantic enough to erase memories of his most recent movie, the financial tar pit that was “Land of the Lost.”
In the decade since he loosened himself from the “Saturday Night Live” tether, Ferrell has delivered half a dozen unqualified mainstream film hits. But last summer, he finally was forced to endure the sudden indignity of an unqualified disaster. “Lost,” which Universal released during a prime early-summer June weekend, couldn’t break the measly $50 million domestic barrier while carrying a production budget more than twice that.
Adding insult to injury, “The Hangover” crashed theaters that same weekend — with relatively unknown stars at a quarter of the cost — on its way to making $277 million domestically.
Now, the 43-year-old “Semi-Pro” star is angling for a rebound. “The Other Guys” reunites Ferrell with writer-director Adam McKay, who helmed three of Ferrell’s biggest hits: “Step Brothers,” “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.”
“Guys,” an $85 million project penned by McKay and “Land” co-writer Chris Henchy, pairs Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as mismatched, second-tier police detectives who get wrapped up in a white-collar crime investigation. The studio expects the comedy to open in the $30 million range of Ferrell hits “Step Brothers” and “Blades of Glory.” This same August weekend in 2006, “Talladega” jumped off the line to $47 million, the actor’s best.
Another major stumble could do serious damage to the funnyman’s upward of $20 million payday and ability to get studio films greenlighted with the same hefty budgets.
Comedies require funny math. They’re designed in the inverse of action movies, which do best when built around the biggest stars with the biggest budgets on the biggest global scale for complete saturation. Such recent successes as “Hangover,” “Pineapple Express,” “Superbad” and “Knocked Up” showed that in the comedy world, the smaller the scale — a $20 million-$30 million budget — the more impressive the potential results: $277 million, $87 million, $121 million and $149 million domestically, respectively.
For one thing, American comedy, with its goofy stars, rarely has foreign appeal, a necessity for most big-budget pictures these days. In Ferrell’s case, only 21% of revenue on his mainstream comedies comes from overseas. So paying him $20 million is a much different investment than paying Johnny Depp or Will Smith $20 million, money that comes back in triplicate from foreign audiences.
Other comics have suffered similar missteps and rebounded nicely. Ten years ago, Sandler brooded for months after “Little Nicky” failed to crack $40 million — a sum that his previous two films, “Big Daddy” and “The Waterboy,” hit during their opening weekends. He returned two years later with the $126 million-grossing “Mr. Deeds,” and eight of his next nine mainstream comedies have cleared $100 million domestic.
Owen Wilson has managed to careen from such embarrassments as “I Spy” and “Drillbit Taylor” to successes such as “Wedding Crashers” and “Marley & Me.”
Ben Stiller and Steve Carell, Ferrell’s co-stars in “Anchorman,” have pulled the same trick. Carell survived the widely panned “Evan Almighty,” which despite grossing more than $173 million worldwide was considered a wash since its budget was bloated to biblical proportions, and pretty much everything he’s touched since has played well into the black.
“They have to shake it off,” said De Luca, who was New Line’s production president when “Little Nicky” bombed. “It’s a real shock, especially when it’s your first one. I don’t know how it is for talent, but on the studio side you do a little post-mortem and try to figure out what it was that didn’t connect with people. But it’s hard to second-guess. One movie with a silly accent is ‘Waterboy,’ and the other movie with a silly accent is ‘Little Nicky.’ Why would one work and not the other? Comedy is so subjective.”
Older comedy stars as diverse as Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and Bill Murray have maintained long careers despite humiliating flops. But with studios squeezing salaries and looking for any reason to tighten the purse strings further on top-tier actors, a second straight failure could signal a tough reckoning.
Ferrell isn’t alone in his predicament. “Anchorman” co-star Jack Black has his own big test this year when he follows up last summer’s underwhelming Sony comedy “Year One,” which grossed just $43 million domestic, with the big-budget, special-effects holiday film from Fox, “Gulliver’s Travels.”
Many of Ferrell’s peers have hedged with family films and franchises, but he has yet to create one the way Stiller and Wilson (“Night at the Museum,” “Madagascar,” “Meet the Parents”), Myers (“Shrek,” “Austin Powers”), Murphy (“Shrek”), Black (“Kung Fu Panda”) and Martin Lawrence (“Big Momma’s House,” “Bad Boys”) have. And Ferrell’s shtick of playing the dementedly arrogant man-child must eventually hit its expiration date.
But according to De Luca, who has had a hand in greenlighting films early in the big-screen careers of Sandler, Myers and Ferrell, this rare breed of funny guys — many of them former stand-ups who also have a major hand in creating their characters and scripts — are good bets. It’s really just the studio that has its chips on the table.
“Will’s still relatively young in his career,” De Luca said. “He’s in his zone right now, and the only thing riding on it really is Sony just wants its movie to work. Once an audience anoints someone a star, it’s like making a best friend, and you just want to see that friend over and over again. A couple of misfires are survivable. And especially with a talent like Will, you know there’s another hit around the corner.”
Beyond his fans’ loyalty, what Ferrell has going for him is a devoted creative family (McKay, Apatow, Henchy), an active production company (Gary Sanchez Prods.) and a thriving online venture in Funny or Die, which has become the farm system for grass-roots comedy talent. Ferrell’s also a screenwriter — he co-wrote “A Night at the Roxbury,” “Anchorman,” “Talladega” and “Step Brothers” — and he has earned Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for film and TV work, including his televised 2009 stage special, “You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush.”
Later this year, Ferrell voices the title character in DreamWorks Animation’s “Megamind,” which hits theaters in November, and stars in one of his occasional forays outside the mainstream studio comedy circuit: the indie drama “Everything Must Go,” which was just accepted to the Toronto International Film Festival.
As far as new projects, Ferrell next stars in and produces the Spanish-language comedy “Casa de Mi Padre,” which is scheduled to begin filming next month.
Whatever can be said about his direction, no one can accuse Ferrell of being unprepared to take risks. Ferrell with subtitles? Wow.