There's no formula for a hit movie. The studios that pony up millions for their summer tentpoles, name cast comedies and heavy Oscar-bait dramas wish there was. But the truth is, there's no science to Hollywood success. Every movie's a gamble, the studios investing a certain level of trust into the creative minds who execute their cinematic product. But that trust has foundation, each piece of the puzzle adding to a movie's predicted success. The goal is to minimize risk-taking: wrangle the stars, establish the format, foresee the marketing twist and pray to the powers that be that it all comes together perfectly.
While the calculated strategy of the blockbuster factory can result in stale final products, this weekend's 21 Jump Street feels like the best-case-scenario of that process, thanks to the movie's inherent risk factor. At first glance, a buddy action comedy starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, two easily identifiable stars, based on a much-loved '80s TV show sounds like a no-brainer. But a closer look raises questions: are Hill and Tatum box office draws? For an R-rated spin on Jump Street? Without the Judd Apatow seal of approval? Instead of settling for the closest combination to a sure thing, it's evident that Sony is planting seeds with 21 Jump Street, identifying talent that they think could pay off—and will only reward them even more down the road. If they're right, of course.
Hill has been working steadily since he broke out in Apatow's 40-Year-Old Virgin, but only in the past few years has he stepped up as a leading man. The results have been mixed: last year's The Sitter came and went with a meager $30.5 million gross, while his 2010 Russell Brand pair-up Get Him to the Greek delivered $61.2 million. Aside from some animated work that raked in the big bucks, his biggest box office success is still 2007's Superbad—arguably the closest comparison to 21 Jump Street. If audiences respond to the dirty-as-hell vibe again, Jump Street could catapult to the levels of success of Superbad (which bowed out at an unexpected $121.5 million).
Juxtaposing Tatum with Hill is keenly playing to a broad audience; you have Hill for the comedy lovers, Tatum for everyone else. Although he's clocked fewer films then his improv-savvy co-star, Tatum has already (and successfully) carried a handful of films across the genre spectrum. The actor established himself as an action star in G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra ($150.2 million) and proved a cinematic heartthrob in both 2010's Dear John ($72.5 million) and The Vow ($111.6 million and climbing). But comedy is still a question mark for the young actor. He's on fire in 21 Jump Street, going toe to toe with Hill without ever missing his mark, but talent and audience perception don't necessarily cross. That said, there's hope: Mark Wahlberg had no problem teaming up with Will Ferrell in the R-rated The Other Guys, which went on to make $119.2 million. Wahlberg had no problem spoofing himself for the sake of comedy, and Tatum follows in his footsteps with Jump Street.
There's a push in Hollywood to stray away from the dreaded R rating. Makes sense: by acquiring the MPAA curse on a movie, studios are essentially cutting off part of their paying crowd. But there's an allure to the R-rated comedy for the age-appropriate audience, looking to indulge on something a little crazier, a little wilder, a little less out-of-the-ordinary than anything the safe PG-13 movies can deliver. The initial success of the recent Project X (taking in $21.1 million in its first two weekends) is evidence that people are clamoring for R-rated comedy, and while 21 Jump Street can't claim the always-helpful "From the People Who Brought You Hangover" (a $227.3 million-earning R comedy) or the unfiltered Apatow magic (which helped skyrocket Bridesmaids and Knocked Up to $169.1 million and $148.8 million, respectively), they still have the feel of those movies. Hill is part of the Apatow in-crowd, imbued with the same sensibilities that helped his comedy mentor shape previous efforts into movies that were so darn likable (and profitable). 21 Jump Street fits the mold, thanks to a script by Project X writer Michael Bacall (with a story by Hill) and two very funny guys behind the camera: Chris Miller and Phil Lord previously helmed the comedian-heavy Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs—the execution.
If 21 Jump Street's predecessor's are any indication, movies like Pineapple Express and 30 Minutes or Less, both budgeted around $30 million, Hill and Tatum's foray into action comedy shouldn't have an issue making back its cost. Will it be a hit? The numbers don't provide a clear answer—but they do spell potential. And in the high stakes gambling world of Hollywood movie-making, that's the best bet.
21 Jump Street hits theaters this Friday, March 16. Box Office numbers provided by Hollywood.com's resident guru Paul Dergarabedian.