The world has certain immutable laws. Once you go bald and kids at convenience stores start calling you “sir,” your days as a hipster are over. It’s the same thing with movie franchises — once they lose their box-office sizzle and begin showing up in direct-to-DVD bins, they ain’t coming back to the multiplex.
Until now, that is. It was nearly 13 years ago that Universal Pictures had a surprise hit with “American Pie,” a giddy, raunchy, R-rated comedy that revolved around a scheme hatched by four teenage boys to lose their virginity before they graduated from high school. Opening in July 1999, the low-budget film made more than $100 million in the U.S. and $133 million more overseas.
Buoyed by a wave of admiring press coverage, the film gave birth to a new cycle of R-rated comedies and served as a launching pad for its young filmmakers, Chris and Paul Weitz, who have gone on to make films as varied as “About a Boy,” which they directed together, and solo efforts such as “Little Fockers,” “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” and “A Better Life.”
“American Pie” was a rare commodity — an R-rated teen comedy franchise. Universal released two sequels, which each made more than $100 million in the U.S. And even after most of the original cast members moved on, the studio kept the franchise alive in home video, churning out four low-budget direct-to-DVD spinoffs under the “American Pie presents” brand.
A strange thing happened, though, in the direct-to-DVD underworld. Universal continued to treat the films as a franchise, spending millions on TV advertising and wooing a new generation of fans. Instead of losing cachet, the DVD series flourished, selling millions of units. The payoff? Universal is bringing the series back to the big screen on April 6 with the release of “American Reunion.”
The new $50-million film reunites the original cast, now playing young thirtysomethings, returning to the mythical hamlet of East Great Falls, Mich., for a high school reunion.
“When the franchise was in its direct-to-DVD run, we learned that the brand had really established itself, not just with the original viewers but with young people who’d never seen the films in a movie theater,” says Universal Pictures Chairman Adam Fogelson, a young, creative advertising executive at the studio when the series debuted. “So we don’t believe we have to introduce an entire generation to the film — it has lived on in the culture.”
Although Universal has struggled to create the kind of A-list franchises that, for its rivals, are financial bonanzas, executives at the studio thought it wasn’t entirely improbable that they could revive a franchise that had been out of theaters for years. After all, 20th Century Fox successfully resuscitated its “Die Hard” franchise with “Live Free and Die Hard” after the series was in the deep freeze for a dozen years. Ditto for “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth “Rocky” movie, which was a sizable hit for MGM in 2006 despite a 15-year hiatus between films.
But the key ingredient in the return of “American Reunion” involves a lesson Universal learned from one of its own films. The studio had nearly resigned itself to taking its flagging “Fast and Furious” franchise to direct-to-DVD when the Universal team, along with the films’ producer, Neal Moritz, decided to reunite the original “Fast” cast for a fourth film. The result, 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” outperformed the first three films and rejuvenated the entire series. The fifth installment, “Fast 5,” took in $628 million worldwide last year, and now sixth and seventh installments are planned.
“ ‘Fast 4’ and ‘Fast 5’ showed us that there was a real value to getting everyone back together,” Fogelson explained. “I mean, the series had basically been declared dead after the third film. And it not only came back in a spectacular fashion but it reinvented the whole idea of release dates for franchises, since it proved that if you had the right movie, you could come out in April and still blow past the box-office records for that time period.”
One other event helped convince Universal that “American Pie” was a franchise whose appeal hadn’t entirely faded. When the studio began looking for writers to pitch ideas for a new installment, they met Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. High school pals from New Jersey, they had bonded over outrageous comedies made by filmmaker teams such as the Farrelly brothers.
After college (Schlossberg graduated from the University of Chicago while Hurwitz has a degree in finance from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School), the duo pursued movies and created the “Harold & Kumar” comedy franchise. They wrote the three stoner comedies and directed the 2008 installment, “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.” Even better, the two were huge “American Pie” fans.
“Between our sophomore and junior years of college we decided to write a script that would be the first real R-rated youth comedy since ‘Revenge of the Nerds,’” Hurwitz recalled. “Then one night I went to see ‘Cruel Intentions,’ and before the film I saw a trailer for ‘American Pie’ and my heart sank. I called Hayden and said, ‘You won’t believe it — someone made our movie.’”
The would-be writers ended up seeing “American Pie” six times while it was in theaters and even more times on DVD, studying it the way young basketball players scrutinize the way Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol run a pick-’n’-roll play. By the time they came to Universal to pitch an “American Reunion” film, they had an encyclopedic accumulation of raunchy comedy ideas. “It struck a chord with us,” Fogelson said. “They had such a fondness and emotional identification with the first film that we felt they could really deliver the comedy moments the film needed.”
For the writers, the whole gestalt of raunchy comedy is rooted in blending outrageous humor with heart-tugging sweetness. “You have to understand what the heart of your movie is,” Schlossberg said. “With ‘Reunion,’ it’s all about friendship and life experience. You need to have that for the audience to care about the characters and get emotionally involved in the story.”
Having seen the film, I suspect Universal has a hit on its hands, especially after hearing the way audience members enjoyed seeing the teen characters return as recognizable, if not entirely responsible adults. When it comes to moviegoing, Americans are amazingly eager to return to the womb, which is surely why studios reboot many pop-culture nuggets from our youth, whether it’s a new Dr. Seuss movie (“The Lorax”), an old TV show (“21 Jump Street”) or a 3-D re-release of a popcorn favorite, like “Titanic,” just to name a few current examples.
“American Reunion” is a perfect fit for the age of pop nostalgia. By letting us see our favorite teen dimwits all grown up, it reminds us that we’re never too old to act young and hilariously dumb all over again.
— Patrick Goldstein
Photo: Jason Biggs in a scene from the upcoming teen comedy "American Reunion."
Credit: Hopper Stone / Universal Pictures