Why Hollywood Isn't Funny Anymore - but TV Is

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It's not only the tragic passing of Robin Williams that has leached the humor out of Hollywood recently. Like many of the celebrated actor's late-career moves, the big-time film industry has been stepping away from comedy.

It wasn't so long ago that comedies were an important staple of any major studio's release diet. No more. These days, moviegoers would be hard-pressed to find one at their local multiplex.

Getting Serious

Of 2013's top 10 grossing movies, none was a pure comedy, according to boxofficemojo.com. According to data compiled by the Nomura Research Institute, 2014 is set to witness the lowest level of major-studio comedies in at least five years.

For 21st Century Fox's (FOXA) near-eponymous 20th Century Fox, comedies are anticipated to make up 8 percent of 2014 releases. That compares unfavorably to 27 percent in 2012 and 2013 and particularly to the 40-plus percent figures of 2010 and 2011.

Disney (DIS), although it's more inclined toward animated fare and other genres, typically throws a comedy or several into its schedule. But this year it isn't planning on releasing any pure comedies.

Lost In Translation

This decline in the funny is due largely to a shift in the global movie going audience. International markets have become increasingly more important, with non-North American audiences comprising 70 percent of box office take in 2013, according to data compiled by the Motion Picture Association of America.

The $25 billion in ticket sales to those markets last year represented an increase of 33 percent from 2009. Meanwhile, the growth in North American box office across the same stretch was a mere 3 percent.

So international audiences matter more. The problem with comedies is that the humor often comes from the dialogue, even in films that feature heavy doses of sight gags and slapstick. (Think of the many verbal jokes among the physical humor of the 1980 classic "Airplane!" for example.) As a result, Hollywood comedies often don't work as well when dubbed or subtitled.

The Great Wall

Consider the size of the movie-going audience in Asia. China in particular is a white-hot market, with ticket sales rising a powerful 27 percent year-over-year in 2013 to $3.6 billion.

Unfortunately, to boost its domestic film industry, the Chinese government strictly limits Hollywood imports. At the moment, only 34 releases from the major American studios are allowed a year. As a result, they're only shipping over movies that translate easily. The top two American efforts of 2013 -- "Iron Man 3" produced by Disney and "Pacific Rim" from Time Warner's (TWX) Warner Bros. -- were big-budget fantasy action films.

That trend looks set to continue. So far in 2014, Hollywood holds the top box office spot in China. The winning movie? "Transformers: Age of Extinction," another expensive science fiction smash-'em-up, this one from Viacom's (VIA) Paramount.

Shrinking Screen

Although the amount of comedy in the multiplex is dropping precipitously, it's finding a niche in other media. In their respective bids to be key destinations for original programming, both Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon.com (AMZN) have filled their rosters out with several notable comedic efforts.

Netflix revived off-the-wall sitcom "Arrested Development" and is filming season three of "Orange Is the New Black," a dramedy set in a women's prison. And next year, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda will team up to star in a new sitcom, "Grace and Frankie."

Meanwhile, out of the five original series on Amazon's Prime streaming service, two ("Alpha House" and "Betas") are laughers.

Is this the wave of the future? Perhaps the comedy genre is more suited to the intimate confines of a tablet or a TV, rather than the massive screen of the movie theater. After all, on that medium at the moment, there only seems to be room for Transformers and superheroes.

Motley Fool contributor Eric Volkman owns shares of Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com, Netflix, and Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com, Netflix, and Disney. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.