'22 Jump Street': Is it time to end the brand-name craze?

'22 Jump Street' is a hit at the box office, but did the brand name have anything to do with it?

With strong early word of mouth and solid reviews, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill's "22 Jump Street"  was poised to be a hit before Schmidt and Jenko even began their latest antics. When the film took in well over $20 million on Friday and wound up with a $60 million weekend -- more than the opening for any R-rated comedy besides "The Hangover 2" -- it bore out those blockbuster expectations.

There are plenty of reasons for the film's success:‎ its winking self-awareness, a likable pair of comedy stars‎, the touch of directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the absence of anything else in that raunch-comedy vein (indeed, after a glut of R-rated comedies in recent summers, the output finally seems to have settled down.)

One factor you’re unlikely to hear in the list of reasons the movie became a hit is the "Jump Street" name itself. Sure, the franchise gets a clever poke or two in at the TV series of a quarter-century ago, making it funnier to those Marilu Henner types who remember it. And the movie's sequel status ensured that people knew what they were in for this time around.

But the truth is that this film franchise could have been called something else from the get-go and been just as successful. Did the “Jump Street” name help the original? Maybe? A tiny bit? Maybe not? For all the nostalgia we children of the '80s feel for the school-set action franchise (Johnny Depp! The "Married With Children" Fox era!), it ranked about No. 21 on the list of reasons to see that movie. Many of those younger or older than us, needless to say, didn't know the show existed in the first place.

The most compelling piece of evidence that a comedy hit of a certain size doesn’t need a presold name is the modern R-rated franchise to which this (and, indeed, all hit comedies of this ilk) are compared. "The Hangover" series was a totally original name that neither relied on nor needed a TV show people knew.

Of course the real reason that the “Jump Street” name was on there had less to do with marketing than internal Hollywood logic. A pitch meeting is a perilous thing, and studio executives greenlighting the first film took comfort in the fact that somewhere, at some time, something with this name had come out and attracted a few people to it. Studio executives like to know that if it all goes kablooey they have a plausible reason to point to ‎ ("well, it seemed like a good idea -- our market-research team said people loved the original!"). So a TV show remake, even when it's not a TV show remake, gets a greenlight.

(Sure, I guess, nominally the idea of undercover cops in a school might require a “reboot” tag for legal reasons.  But in a Hollywood culture that has replicated far more specific ideas with far fewer repercussions, this hardly seems like it would have been an insurmountable obstacle.)

I suppose none of this really matters. They could the film “Timbuktu Returns” as long as they put smart creators like Lord and Miller and beguiling performers like Tatum and Hill. Audiences will be happy, and studios will be happy too.

But still. For an industry so concerned about PR, this has always felt to me like a misstep, reinforcing to the casual observer that modern Hollywood lacks originality and just lazily relies on the efforts of its forbears -- even when such an idea is manifestly untrue. Audiences have demonstrated they don’t care what a movie is called as long as it’s funny. Doesn’t seem like a big leap for Hollywood to do the same.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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