For years, critics have loved to hate Adam Sandler, whose movies – and jokes – have been frozen in a '90s-era stunted adolescence even as the actor approaches age 50. The media’s reaction to Thursday’s news that Sandler’s production company, Happy Madison, had signed an exclusive four-picture deal with Netflix was no exception: “Adam Sandler" quickly rose to the top of Twitter’s trending topics, with most of the commentary poking fun at the “Billy Madison” actor and his (supposedly) universally reviled movies.
But maybe the distaste for Sandler is not quite as universal as the media might have us believe. “There is a big divide between the media and critics and the people who talk a lot about this stuff, and the rest of the world,” said Forbes reporter Dorothy Pomerantz, who put Sandler at the top of Forbes’ 2013 Most Overpaid Actors list. “We all might think that Adam Sandler is a joke, but the truth is he gets paid $20 million [a movie] for a reason. His movies do better than you think for the most part.”
It’s true that there have been notable exceptions that challenge the narrative of Sandler’s box-office decline. While some of Sandler’s recent signature comedies -- “Jack and Jill,” “That’s My Boy” and “Blended” – were bona fide flops, the ensemble comedies “Grown Ups” and “Grown Ups 2,” both Happy Madison productions distributed by Sony Pictures, performed much better.
But Sandler and his production company’s profitability have not hinged on opening weekends alone. “They do huge business on home video,” Forbes said, adding, “[Adam Sandler] movies are not terribly expensive.” Indeed, most of Sandler’s movies produced by Sony in the last few years have had a budget of somewhere between $70 million and $80 million. “The biggest cost of an Adam Sandler movie is Adam Sandler,” Forbes said.
And is he worth it?
“Sandler is the closest thing you’re gonna get to a sure thing,” said Chris Blundell, a London-based filmmaker. “[He] doesn’t need the critics to sell his films.”
Blundell characterized the deal as a good business decision on both sides. For Happy Madison, it provides “upfront financing for four movies, cutting out middlemen and their cut, going direct to where his audience will watch his [new] content side by side with his back catalog.”
And it is apparently on the strength of this catalog that Netflix saw the potential for an original content deal. Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told the New York Times that Netflix approached Sandler after their metrics showed his movies to be quite popular among its subscribers. This disclosure likely came as a surprise to some readers, given the dismal box-office reports of some of Sandler’s recent films. Does Netflix know something the rest of us don’t?
The answer is yes, definitely. “Netflix has all this data on what we watch. So they know exactly what customers wants. They can tailor their production to that. Nobody else has that ability,” Forbes said. So far, Netflix has kept this valuable data to itself.
“They have taken this information and said, 'Clearly what our viewers need are some more Adam Sandler movies,'” Pomerantz said.
But it’s unclear exactly what Netflix hopes to gain from what was likely a big investment. As Forbes pointed out, there are no back-end profits for Netflix content, so whatever money Sandler will make on these movies will have had to have been paid upfront. (Netflix, unsurprisingly, did not reveal any financial details.) “They have to be paying him a [boat]load of money or he wouldn’t have done it.”
Right now, Netflix makes money only from subscriptions. And while its subscriber base is always growing, that growth, at least domestically, has begun to slow. With affordable and easy access to Netflix, it seems possible that its subscribership might be reaching a saturation point in certain markets. Where there is opportunity for more growth is overseas, particularly in Asian markets (excluding China, where Netflix is not available).
Still, “comedy doesn’t play overseas,” Pomerantz said. “Comedy doesn’t translate as well because jokes can be subtle. [But] maybe Adam Sandler is a better deal here because his jokes are much broader.”
“It’s a really fascinating, slightly confusing play,” she said, adding, “Netflix is not infallible.”