This is installment three in “The Friedberg-Seltzer Massacre: How Two Men Single-handedly Destroyed the Parody Genre.”
Here we go. This is the point after which discussing the works of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer becomes an arduous chore. Epic Movie signals the beginning of the end for the blockbuster parody film. This is not to say that the Friedberg-Seltzer movies stop making a profit after this movie. But Epic Movie embodies all of the things that detractors of the parody genre point to when they argue for its extinction. And while Friedberg and Seltzer (mostly) weather the severe backlash to their films through the 2000s, the parody genre as a whole starts to fade away.
Since 2007, major spoof releases have grossed the following worldwide, in millions (Friedberg and Seltzer titles in bold):
- Epic Movie (2007) – $86.8
- The Comebacks (2007) – $13.5
- Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) – $20.6
- Meet the Spartans (2008) – $84.6
- Superhero Movie (2008) – $73.0
- Disaster Movie (2008) – $36.7
- Dance Flick (2009) – $32.2
- Vampires Suck (2010) – $81.4
- Casa de Mi Padre (2012) – $8.4
- A Haunted House (2013) – $59.9
- Scary Movie V (2013) – $78.6
- A Haunted House 2 (2014) – $21.2
- Fifty Shades of Black (2016) – $22.1
- Meet the Blacks (2016) – $9.1
- Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) – $9.5
There hasn’t been a major theatrical parody since 2016. With few exceptions, the overall theatrical draw for these movies has diminished since the 2000s. The Friedberg and Seltzer movies of that decade are one of those exceptions (save for Disaster Movie, for reasons I will explain in the next installment). Scary Movie V is another exception, but when comparing that sub-$100 million gross to the box office of the previous four installments, it is clear that the draw of the franchise name had worn off by the 2010s (the film also came out seven years after Scary Movie 4).
This dwindling box office is likely due to multiple factors. One, I would surmise, is that a bad taste had been left in audiences’ mouths time and time again throughout the 2000s. Another is the introduction of streaming and general shifts in the film industry which made it harder for mid-budget films to succeed at the box office. Friedberg and Seltzer even succumbed to this industry paradigm shift, with their later films seeing only limited theatrical releases. Third, Hollywood saw a general turn away from broad comedy films in the 2010s.
And, perhaps most importantly, genres occasionally work in cycles . This is to say, certain types of movies become popular with audiences in a given period of time. A hit film is replicated by studios, potentially creating a saturated market for that content, and audiences eventually tire of the repetition.
The 2000s parody films are a great example of this phenomenon. Scary Movie was a massive hit in 2000. Miramax immediately moved to follow up this success with sequels. Four Scary Movie films were made in the span of six years. But the success branched out beyond this franchise and this studio. Fox tapped Friedberg and Seltzer to make their batch of parodies. The studio also made Kung-Pow!: Enter the Fist. Colombia made Not Another Teen Movie. MGM and Miramax (again) made Superhero Movie. Paramount distributed Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police. And this is without mentioning the bevy of direct-to-video releases that aimed to capitalize on the popularity of the spoof format.
Of course, there were financially successful parody films prior to the 2000s. The late 1970s saw a crop of them, and the 1990s saw major hits like Hot Shots and The Naked Gun (we could maybe throw Austin Powers into this list, as well). But the release of Scary Movie proved to the industry that the formula of the genre parody which directly pulls references from other films was bankable again. The Scary sequels, Date Movie, and Epic Movie proved that it wasn’t a one-off fluke. Audiences came out to see these movies. Until they didn’t.
This is the other aspect that defines a genre cycle. What goes up must come down, and the waning in popularity is just as important to the cycle as the waxing. When a movie is a hit, the industry might shift to produce movies similar to that hit. When people stop paying money to see that type of movie, the industry shifts the other way.
For the 2000s spoof cycle, the axes on which this popularity turns are the Wayans and Friedberg-Seltzer.
When Miramax fired the Wayans from the Scary Movie franchise after the second installment, the brothers went on to produce more parody films (as well as two $100 million grossers for Sony in White Chicks and Little Man). But they could never recapture the flame that Scary Movie sparked. Both A Haunted House films made back their budgets and then some, but the box office was nowhere near that of the horror parody franchise they were pushed out of. Fifty Shades of Black made a small profit. Dance Flick opened number five at the box office but didn’t turn a profit.
The Friedberg-Seltzer trajectory was similar. Consistent hits (save for Disaster Movie) followed from Scary Movie to the end of the decade. In the 2010s, their titles became anonymous direct-to-VOD fare. These films don’t have grosses at the box office, and they became lost in the shuffle of streaming platform libraries, which are teeming with low-grade films attempting to bank on the success of other IP.
By 2015, when Superfast! came out, the parody genre was a hollow shell of its former self, and there was no good will left to sell the movie on. The tagline “From two of the six writers of Scary Movie” wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Certainly “From the team that brought you Date Movie, Meet the Spartans, and Vampires Suck” (a tagline for The Starving Games) wasn’t going to sell any tickets.
I write all of this preamble to say, I really would rather talk about anything else besides Epic Movie. It truly is one of the worst movies I have ever experienced, and it proves that my 12-year-old self had the comedy taste of a fart lit on fire. Although, to be fair to myself, I do think I was even mixed on the film at 12.
Date Movie had an inkling of a linear plot-line that occasionally made logical sense. Epic Movie is a series of pop culture references in service of nothing, randomly linking plot points together with no rhyme or reason like a patchwork quilt of cultural short-term memory detritus. Within the first five minutes, the film has already riffed on The DaVinci Code, Nacho Libre, Snakes on a Plane, and Willy Wonka without once justifying or explaining the existence of these impersonations.
Our main cast of orphans (characters who will eventually be riffs on figures from The Chronicles of Narnia) are introduced in this way, but none of their personalities or motivations are established using these parodies. Kal Penn’s character claims to want to be a superstar luchador, but he only says that because the script meets him while he is living inside of a Nacho Libre sketch for two minutes. Once he leaves the world of that parody, his character becomes something completely different.
You may be thinking, why do characters’ personalities and motivations matter in a broad, raunchy, Seltzer-Friedberg parody. And it seems that the writers didn’t think it mattered, either. However, I think it is the problem at the core of this film’s other, myriad problems. Penn, Jayma Mays, Adam Campbell, and Faune Chambers are all capable performers who seem able to deliver a well-written joke. But because nearly everything the characters say or do is in service of the next pop culture reference, these actors come off like deer in headlights. They don’t have characters to play, really, so they are doing whatever they can in each individual scene to sell the jokes. There is no consistency, because the script won’t allow for it.
If the jokes were funny, maybe it wouldn’t even matter. But the jokes aren’t funny, and the actors are desperately flailing to be funny all the same. My reaction to this was something resembling pity for this cast.
The only moments where these performances stop being hapless is during the many instances of broad physical slapstick. At least these moments are imbued with the time-honored comedy tradition of, person getting hurt = funny. In Epic Movie, I don’t find the slapstick funny, but it at least allows the actors and their stunt doubles to perform without the constraints of terrible dialogue.
Like with Date Movie, this dialogue is missing a key attribute of comedy writing: punchlines. During certain scenes, I couldn’t help but imagine what pitching the movie on these scenes might look like:
OK, so it’s Narnia, but it’s also a Cribs parody.
Oh, yeah? I think that show’s still on. That could funny. What jokes do you have for that?
Well, what if there are a bunch of nameless, wordless women in bikinis?
OK. Good for marketing to our PG-13 heterosexual male demo. The jokes, though?
There are TVs. Everywhere.
TVs. Like in the toilet bowl. Oh, oh, and there can be a TV on one of the bikini girl’s heads!
Good joke, right?
Joke? And what does this have to do with the plot?
Epic Movie just feels like the first nail in the coffin. It barely registers as a complete film. It clocks in at a cool 85 minutes (70 minutes of movie, 15 minutes of credits and characters dancing to Bubba Sparxxx’s “Ms. New Booty.” Classic 2007). The film fully lives up to its reputation as comedic malpractice, and we haven’t even reached the bottom of the spoof genre’s fall.
In the next installment, we will do just that, sinking even lower into the quagmire that is the Friedberg-Seltzer filmography with a look at their 2008 films, Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie.
 For a detailed analysis of cycles, what they are, and how they function within the film industry, see: Klein, 2011.
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)