How do you make teen comedies today? Buy a high school

Teala Dunn and Tyler Alvarez perform a scene for a film at American High, a production hub in Liverpool, New York, on Sept 13, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Film crew members at American High on Sept 13, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Costumes for director Sammi Cohen's new movie at American High, on Sept 13, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LIVERPOOL, NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The teenage couple is lounging on the lawn outside a high school, taking advantage of a free period between classes in that age-old way: making out on the quadrangle. A friend runs over, clearly agitated by a drama unfolding elsewhere, and asks for help. The duo reluctantly gets up and follows, dragging their backpacks behind them.

The director, Sammi Cohen, yells cut. An actor, Tyler Alvarez, asks for another take. "One more, real quick," he says.

This is an early autumn day, back to school at American High. The school has not had actual students in the halls for years, but it is once again home to high school drama of the sort generally captured in R-rated teenage comedies.

Sitting in the far corner of that grassy area is Jeremy Garelick, 46, a writer-director-producer and the maestro of the American High experiment. Wearing an American High baseball cap, red-tinted sunglasses and a pair of headphones slung around his neck, he watched the scenes on an enormous iPad for this latest American High production, an untitled love story about an aspiring young artist who is forced to join her high school track team.

Garelick, best known as the director of The Wedding Ringer (2015) and the screenwriter of The Break Up (2006), is betting that the time is right now for a surge in hormonal high jinks captured on film: teen stories for the sensibilities of the Gen Z streaming generation. After all, it has been roughly two decades since tales of love, sex and related high school humiliations had created hits such as American Pie (1999) and Can't Hardly Wait (1998), films that themselves were grabbing the baton from 1980s John Hughes classics.

Studios, focused on special effects-laden blockbusters, do not share his conviction. They now shy away from this kind of mid-budget-range film because of the marketing costs needed to help turn it into a box-office success - and the risky proposition of selling something to the fickle teen audience.

Back in 2007, the comedy Superbad, starring then-relative unknowns Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, became a significant hit, earning US$170 million in worldwide grosses. Yet fast forward a decade to the female version of that gross-out comedy, the Olivia Wilde-directed Booksmart (2019), which was beloved by critics and also featured an up-and-coming cast, but earned only US$25 million (S$34 million) in box-office receipts.

Chris Weitz, the co-director of American Pie and one of the producers of Cohen's film, attributes the shift to technology that puts audiences in control.

"It was one thing when the gatekeepers, usually old fogeys, controlled what kind of content was going to be put out about teens," he said.

"Now teens can get all kinds of content about themselves made by themselves, which gives them a greater sense of truth to them than something that any feature film producer would cook up."

With that in mind, Garelick decided to make the films inexpensively on his own. If done correctly, they could be funnelled onto streaming platforms, which are constantly on the hunt for new material, especially content that attracts the ever elusive teen audience.

He figured out if he shot two movies back to back in one location, he could save one-third of his production costs. If he shot three, he could save half. He could be like the now begone film studio New Line, applying The Lord Of The Rings cost-savings method to the world of teen comedy. Peter Jackson relied on the verdant landscape of New Zealand for his Hobbit-driven epic.

Garelick would have an abandoned school.

A classroom at American High, a film production hub in Liverpool, New York, on Sept 13, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

He thought that if he could offer a consistent flow of films, surely a streaming service would bite. And if he were to find a location where he could take advantage of the tax incentives given by local governments, his dollars would go further and he could benefit from the support of the local community.

First, he needed a school: something brick and stately, at once lived in, but also easily adaptable for any high school scene.

He thought of the basic settings: a school gymnasium, a cafeteria, classrooms, hallways, an auditorium.

It also had to be located in a state offering significant tax incentives. After some Google searching, Garelick and his then-assistant, Will Phelps, 30, who is now his producing partner, flew to Syracuse and drove to Liverpool, where Garelick saw the 89-year-old A.V. Zogg School, a regal-looking institution in a tree-lined neighbourhood. Over the years, it has functioned as both a middle school and a high school, a community church and had been most recently owned by a Thai businessman.

For US$1 million in 2017, it was Garelick's.

Producer Jeremy Garelick (right) with his producing partner Will Phelps, at American High, on Sept 13, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

He was going to make three movies that looked as if they cost US$30 million each, but would cost only US$8 million. Producer Mickey Liddell and his LD Entertainment bit, and American High was in business.

The first two movies were small. Holly Slept Over (2020) cost only US$500,000 while Banana Split (2018) was done for US$1.2 million.

Then American High produced Big Time Adolescence with Pete Davidson and Jon Cryer. The raunchy comedy made it into Sundance in 2019 and was sold to Hulu, the start of a partnership with the streaming service. The companies now have an eight-picture licensing deal.

Of the 11 American High movies that have been shot at the school since 2017, seven have been made by first-time film-makers, three of them women.

Producer Jeremy Garelick bumps elbows with actor Teala Dunn at American High, on Sept 13, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Near the end of a long day of filming, Garelick sat in American High's gym, watching a scene unfold and ruminating on his own high school experience. Growing up in New York, he was a football player, a member of the school's theatre troupe and president of the class. "I loved the rah-rah of it all," he said.

Now he gets to relive that feeling every day.

American High has the bandwidth to shoot five films a year. Garelick and Phelps have also trained enough crew members that they can hand the reins of a production to others.

"We both feel responsible for a lot of people, and it's definitely a lot of pressure," he said. "But it's also incredibly rewarding."

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