‘Good Boys’: Why the Universal Comedy’s First-Place Finish Has Hollywood Cheering

August 19, 2019, 4:57 PM UTC

It’s been a hard year for comedies and mid-budget movies both, which makes the surprise box-office success of Universal’s R-rated Good Boys all that much sweeter.

With a $21 million debut, the comedy leap-frogged past Hobbs & Shaw (another Universal flick that was at number two with $14.1 million, a figure that helped put the Fast & Furious spinoff past the $400 million mark globally).

That number was way above expectations. Going into the weekend, most schools of thought had instructed that Good Boys would settle for $12 to $15 million, losing to Hobbs & Shaw. The Gene Stupnitsky-directed comedy, which was produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (This Is the End), centers on three 12-year-old boys who’ll stop at nothing to make their way into a secret “kissing party.” Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, and Brady Noon star.

Given its reported $20 million production budget, a $21 million debut is certainly spectacular news for Universal—but also heartening for Hollywood as a whole.

Amid a landscape in which mighty tentpoles prop up the box-office number one spot so loftily that small and mid-budget movies seldom have a chance of reaching it, one narrative often bandied around is that some movies are made to be seen on the big screen, most commonly because of how expensive they look. Others simply don’t have the commercial caché behind them—or, less commonly these days for everyone who’s not Quentin Tarantino, the star power—to get audiences interested.

“I think the concept of it was just so outrageous,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for data firm Comscore. “It reminds me of Ted, with the R-rated, foul-mouthed teddy bear. It was such a high concept for comedy it proved irresistible.”

Middling results for comedies this year, especially R-rated ones, have felt like dark clouds over Hollywood; audiences generally shrugged at Stuber, Late Night, Booksmart, Long Shot (also from Rogen and Goldberg), Poms, The Hustle, and Shaft.

But Good Boys—carrying the fire lit last week by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark—aimed a crudely made slingshot directly at that narrative and hit home. Like Scary Stories (which had a very comparable $20.8 million debut that probably would have been even stronger had it not opened a week after Hobbs & Shaw), Good Boys was a lower-budget, non-franchise entry that relied on genre bona fides over on-screen star power.

And like Scary Stories, Good Boys still got moviegoers heading out to theaters, because it successfully sold them on the promise of delivering the kind of big-screen entertainment best enjoyed with a crowd.

“It’s electricity in the air,” said Degarabedian. “Like with the horror movie, the movie theater is made for the comedy. This was a fun, quick, R-rated comedy fix in the communal environment of the movie theater.”

Horror has experienced a massive comeback in recent years, with Get Out and It leading the genre’s box-office results to all-time highs in 2017; Us and It: Chapter 2 appear ready to match if not surpass that record this year. The R-rated comedy, said Degarabedian, could be the next hot commodity if studios learn lessons from Good Boys.

“What comedy has to do is get back in the driver’s seat to be one of the go-to genres for movie theaters,” he said, noting that massive returns for movies like The Hangover (which netted $467 million globally) prove the genre can do big business. “Let’s hope this serves as inspiration for directors, executives, producers and writers to look at Good Boys as an example of getting it right.”

Good Boys‘ A+ gross gave it the biggest debut for an original comedy this year; Madea’s Family Funeral, a franchise film, has it beat with a $27.1 million, but that’s due to a sizable built-in audience that’s spent decades turning out for Tyler Perry. The film’s big debut also marks the first time an R-rated comedy has sat in the number one perch in its first weekend since Melissa McCarthy vehicle The Boss back in 2016.

Without any stars of her magnitude in leading roles, the box-office result for Good Boys owes much more to its savvy and energetic marketing campaign, a trademark for Universal. The studio—though often clobbered by Disney along with the rest of Hollywood on the blockbuster front—is a reliable hitmaker in terms of comedies. Good Boys joins a string of recent high-opening genre hits for the studio, including Blockers ($20.55 million), Night School ($27.2 million), and Girls Trip ($31.2 million).

“This could have gone wrong in so many ways,” said Degarabedian, noting the difficulties Universal faced in marketing a raunchy comedy with underage actors. “They made it go right.”

August is a historically strange month for Hollywood, sometimes a dumping ground and sometimes the site of massive, off-kilter hits. Some films, like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and now Good Boys, find audiences there, taking advantage of a relative blockbuster drought to spin entertainingly niche tales.

“August is the most punk-rock of all the months,” said Degarabedian. “Inglourious Basterds, Superbad, Straight Outta Compton, Guardians of the Galaxy. You get a lot of cool movies. Now Good Boys will be added to the list of edgy hits released this month.”

Unfortunately, the film’s very good news didn’t extend to other new releases. The Lion King, in its umpteenth (really fifth) week out, secured $11.9 million to take third place; the Disney animated remake roared so mightily across the worldwide box office that it’ll likely last past the Labor Day frame well into fall.

That left Sony’s Angry Birds 2, another animated, non-Disney sequel in a year that’s been by and large unkind to them; with a $10.5 million take, the sequel struck a mournful chord for its studio. Sony launched the first movie to the tune of $38.2 million in its opening weekend; it had the benefit of being the only animated film in theaters until Finding Dory a month later. The studio’s lousy end-result for this sequel was likely cushioned by the afterglow of Spider-Man: Far From Home, which surpassed Skyfall‘s $1.1 billion haul to become the studio’s top-ever grosser.

No such silver lining existed for the other newcomers.

47 Meters Down: Uncaged, EST’s sequel to Johannes Roberts’ 2017 shark movie, made $9 million, less than the $13 million expected; that’s also less than the $11.2 million posted by Roberts’ first film in its opening weekend and likely sounds the death knell for any future follow-ups. No one had exactly been asking for a 47 Meters Down sequel, but EST was likely also caught off guard by the surprise success of Scary Stories, which horror audiences continued to prefer this weekend (it scared up $10 million in its second frame) over the nautical newbie.

Said Degarabedian: “When you have this many new movies in theaters, there will be casualties.”

Blinded by the Light and Where’d You Go, Bernadette both got hopelessly lost in the woods in their first week out, finishing in the 10th and 11th spots.

Despite mostly strong reviews and plenty of goodwill for Bruce Springsteen, whose work factors heavily into the story (as the Beatles did into Yesterday), Blinded just wasn’t born to run at the box office. With $4.5 million in first-weekend ticket sales, Warner Bros. better hope it does better overseas to make up for the $15 million investment it made in acquiring the movie out of Sundance.

“There have been a lot of music-based fims over the past few years,” said Degarabedian, who notes audiences were just in theaters watching Yesterday. “Audiences seem to have a really strong radar for things that appear similar to other things. You look at The Kitchen last week; it looked familiar after Steve McQueen’s Widows.”

Still, a 90% Certified Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes could mean Blinded isn’t down for the count just yet. “Maybe people will come out and discover it,” said Degarabedina. “Some August releases come and go quickly. And others, if they’re really good, can find long-term life.”

Bernadette ($3.5 million) boasted director Richard Linklater and star Cate Blanchett but curiously failed to showcase either in a wobbly marketing campaign from United Artists and the embattled Annapurna.

“It’s crazy,” said Degarabedian. “That movie had so much going for it. If you have Linklater, that’s like having an all-star on your team, and you need to let people know he’s behind your movie.

“When you’re going for a mostly older audience – not to pigeonhole – not that many rush out on opening weekend,” he added. “It was much more of a niche film than we thought, so it should have been platform-released.”

It’s possible Annapurna’s reported financial woes bled over into its ability to effectively promote the tonally odd missing-person caper, which was also the midlife-crisis story of a kooky artist rediscovering herself. But $3.5 million is a huge embarrassment for the studios, especially given a not-insignificant $18 million budget that some clock even higher. The somewhat confusing premise didn’t help, but the real killer here may have been reviews. A specialty pic, with which critical opinion tends to matter, it’s sitting rotten at 44% on Rotten Tomatoes.

“You have so many movies opening in August,” said Degarabedian. At the end of the say, “it’s really hard to rise above the noise.”

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