Adam Sandler, his incredible box office run, and the Sony fall-out

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Adam Sandler’s decade of box office dominance, and how The Ridiculous Six helped bring it to an end.

For a period of around a decade, Sony Pictures was in an enviable position. That the studio, from 1999’s Big Daddy onwards, was the home of Adam Sandler and ultimately his Happy Madison Productions company. It was the kind of deal where all sides won. Sandler had the freedom to develop his particular brand of relatively economical comedies (with the biggest expense on most of them being salaries), whilst Sony had a pretty much annual stream of hit movies.

It was Sony’s then-boss Amy Pascal who spotted Sandler as a talent to bring to the studio. She was won over by The Wedding Singer, the surprise hit that he headlined alongside Drew Barrymore. By this stage in his career, he’d earned an audience off the back of his Saturday Night Live work and a handful of small hits (Happy Gilmore, for instance). But The Wedding Singer felt like him breaking into the mainstream.

Any doubt about that was removed when the Disney-backed The Waterboy proved to be a gigantic hit months later. Pascal wanted to work with him, and an opportunity opened up.

The studio had, according to the book The Big Picture: The Fight For The Future Of Movies, been developing a project for Chris Farley. But when the comedy actor tragically died way too soon, that project became one for Adam Sandler. The resultant film, Big Daddy, was a gigantic hit, and off the back of it, Sandler was offered a production home with Sony for his company. Happy Madison Productions was born.

What followed was hit after hit after hit. Primarily the kind of comedies that had brought him to fame, with the occasional serious project on the side. It’s hard to overstate just what an incredible commercial run Sony and Sandler had. Anger Management, 50 First Dates, The Longest Yard, Click, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Grown Ups and Just Go With It between 2003 and 2010 all hit.

Sandler didn’t make every project for Sony in this period, but all of his commercial ones were housed there. The likes of Funny People he made with Judd Apatow at Universal, whilst Disney hired him for Bedtime Stories. But virtually every else was at Sony. Happy Madison Productions too was developing similar projects that were also proving profitable. Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo and particularly Paul Blart: Mall Cop overcome poor reviews to bring home good returns.

Whilst many looked down their noses at what Sandler and his team were doing, there wasn’t a studio in Hollywood that didn’t envy the box office successes.

But it ultimately couldn’t last. As Hollywood started to change and move towards franchise properties, so Sandler’s comedies weren’t really evolving. There was said to be resistance within Sony for Jack & Jill, the infamous 2011 film where Sandler also played a brother and sister. But whilst the reviews for it were amongst the worst of his career – confirming Sony’s caution – once again the money came in. The studio could hardly refuse to make it, but it wasn’t happy. So much so that it wanted to pass on the next project Sandler brought to them, That’s My Boy. Sandler pushed back, Sony acquiesced, and the movie was greenlit, although the relationship was straining. This time, the box office didn’t cover the budget, and the film lost money.

Sandler had other projects he wanted to pursue at the studio, but after two films it had not wanted to make hadn’t hit the commercial heights of his earlier projects, the lights were no longer green. The deal was going to come to an end, with one more movie to go. That’d turn out to be Pixels, and that’s a whole story in itself.

For by the time Sandler came to make that film, he was tied to another studio of sorts. But not before making films elsewhere. He went to Warner Bros to reunite with Drew Barrymore for another box office disappointment, Blended. And he had an idea for a western that he started shopping around town.

Sony passed fairly quickly on what would become The Ridiculous Six. As Ben Fritz’s book notes, this was the first outright ‘no’ that Sony had given to Sandler. He thus took it next to Paramount, and then to Warner Bros. Each considered it, each passed.

Nobody wanted to make Adam Sandler comedies anymore (although Sony Animation and Sandler continue to enjoy success with the Hotel Transylvania films). And with Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways To Die In The West underperforming at the box office too, nobody wanted to make a comedy western either.

Sandler and Sony’s relationship was strained, with tensions reportedly high between the star and Amy Pascal. And then out of nowhere, Netflix offered Sandler a can’t refuse deal: a four-picture commitment, at premium rate, to make the films he wanted for the streaming service.

It was a gigantic bolt out of nowhere, and a huge turning point too in the streaming versus cinema argument. Here was a big movie star, who still had some box office juice, electing to follow the streaming money long before many of his contemporaries did. It was the movie star equivalent of David Beckham signing for L.A. Galaxy in his early thirties.

It helped too that Netflix agreed to fund The Ridiculous Six, which proved to be the first picture in the since-extended deal. The film turned out as had been expected, but Netflix was happy with the numbers it saw. And Sandler, post-Pixels, was pretty much out of traditional live action studio movies.

He’d continue to make Hotel Transylvania films, but the Netflix deal more than paid for his weekly shop, whilst ultimately also afforded him the space to do his traditional brand of comedies, and arguably his career-best performance in the current Uncut Gems.

Sony, meanwhile, has never plugged the gap. Its slate still has occasional comedies, but it – and every other studio – has never found anything as reliable as the Sandler hit machine since. Economically-priced movies that reliably delivered a profit, year after year. The films may not be all that, but in terms of a box office comedy force – turning up with a hit movie in cinemas on an annual basis – we may never see Sandler’s like again.

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