In Hollywood’s high-stakes summer movie season, R-rated comedies usually pick up the box-office scraps left behind by superheroes, robots and talking animals.
Warner Bros. has a far different plan for “The Hangover Part II.”
The studio is releasing the sequel to its 2009 raunchy blockbuster on Memorial Day weekend — a lucrative moviegoing time traditionally reserved for big-budget, all-audience films — in hopes of topping the holiday box office against hefty competition: the animated family comedy “Kung Fu Panda 2" and Johnny Depp holdover “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”
Warner is also simultaneously debuting “Hangover” nearly everywhere around the globe, another rarity for R-rated comedies as the genre’s culturally specific jokes often don’t play well overseas. But the original “Hangover” grossed $190 million internationally, more than half of the $277 million it collected in the U.S. and Canada.
Like most studios, Warner has centered its business around “tentpoles,” movies that generate outsized ticket sales from a broad swath of the population, are popular around the world and have sequel potential. That has usually meant action-adventure series, comic book adaptations and computer animated fare.
Though “The Hangover Part II” is none of those things, it is still being positioned as one of the big-screen events of this summer. Warner hopes to demonstrate that an R-rated comedy can stand alongside the franchises that form the core of the modern movie business.
“For several years we have wanted to succeed in comedy while still pursuing our director-driven tentpole strategy,” said Greg Silverman, the studio’s production president. “It’s a big deal for us to prove it can be done.”
Last year’s “Sex and the City 2,” also a Warner Bros. release, is the only other R-rated comedy to open over Memorial Day weekend in the past decade. It ended up No. 3 at the box office, with $51 million from Thursday through Monday.
But pre-release tracking surveys suggest that the second “Hangover,” which once again follows a trio of friends who black out during a bachelor party gone disastrously awry, will gross more than $100 million in the same timeframe. That would make it the biggest opening of all time for an R-rated movie or live-action comedy, not accounting for inflation.
“The tracking for ‘Hangover 2' is so insane that it can’t be compared to any other R-rated comedies,” said Vinny Bruzzese, president of the worldwide motion picture group for research firm Ipsos OTX MediaCT.
The studio also has big expectations abroad.
Warner’s international distribution president, Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, said she had no easy explanation why the first “Hangover” succeeded where so many like it have failed (no film produced by comedy magnate Judd Apatow, for instance, has grossed more than $70 million internationally), but was “amazed” to see ticket sales build during the film’s staggered foreign release despite modest publicity.
The sequel, by contrast, is getting a full-on global marketing push, including a Berlin premiere following one last week in Hollywood. Germany was the second-strongest foreign market for “The Hangover,” joining No. 1 Britain, Australia, France and other European countries in driving about 85% of international receipts.
Kwan-Rubinek said she’s hoping for a repeat performance in those countries and growth in Latin America and Russia, where the original did little business. Moviegoing has grown rapidly in both regions over the last two years, but audiences there have yet to embrace an R-rated American comedy.
When Warner and partner Legendary Pictures bought “The Hangover” script in 2007, it was seen as a summer alternative for guys looking for explicit laughs. In hindsight, studio executives attribute its surprise success to the film being as touching as it was ribald, thus drawing women along with men.
There’s no guarantee the follow-up will do the same. To up the ante in a plot that mirrors the original, “The Hangover Part II” features darker humor, more explicit nudity and descriptions of lewd sexual acts. In some foreign countries, producers had to blur shots of male genitalia to get past government censors. It remains to be seen how those who thought the first “Hangover” tested the boundaries of good taste will react.
“It will be interesting to watch how we perform after opening,” said Sue Kroll, Warner president of worldwide marketing. “I still think the playability will be good and people will tell their friends to go see it.”
Warner and Legendary have much more at stake this time betting that Kroll is right.
The second “Hangover” cost about $80 million to make — more than twice as much as the original. That’s, in part, because much of the film was shot on location in Thailand. Bringing back director Todd Phillips and the cast led by Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms was also more expensive.
The director and lead actors got “gross points,” an increasingly rare practice in Hollywood that gives them a cut of revenue as soon as the studio receives it. On the original, Phillips gave up his upfront payment for a slice of the money left after Warner and Legendary recouped their costs. The film was so profitable that he ended up making as much as $60 million, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity because of the privacy of such financial matters.
If “The Hangover Part II” performs better than the original, the movie’s backers will be eager for what typically follows success in Hollywood: more of the same, possibly as soon as 2013.
Helms said in a recent interview that he couldn’t imagine another sequel, but Warner’s top movie executive, Jeff Robinov, feels differently.
“Our hope is to get to a third ‘Hangover,’” he said. “Whether we can get to a fourth depends on Todd [Phillips’] imagination.”
Times staff writer John Horn contributed to this report.