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The Judd Apatow Sign of the Times

david kramer judd apatow rip
Behind the scenes, Apatow and his UTA team have been hustling—often with frustrating results, despite Apatow having an active first-look deal at Universal for film and TV. Photo-Illustration: Puck; Photos: Steve Granitz/FilmMagic; Unique Nicole/GA/The Hollywood Reporter/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
May 17, 2024

Were you at all surprised this week when Judd Apatow fired his agency of 30 years? Nobody who’s been paying attention was. Apatow, the onetime center of the comedy universe, has been kinda struggling lately. His last scripted feature as a director was pandemic misfire The Bubble, which Netflix for some reason paid $50 million to make. Since then, Apatow has done great documentary work, but on the narrative side, he’s produced only Billy Eichner’s box office bomb Bros and the Please Don’t Destroy movie, which Universal greenlit for theaters before sentencing it to a quiet death on Peacock.

This is a guy whose 2005-15 run I’d put up against any decade for any filmmaker of any genre. Seriously, just in that span, Apatow wrote, directed, and/or produced The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Talladega Nights, Superbad, Walk Hard, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Step Brothers, Pineapple Express, Year One, Funny People, Get Him to the Greek, Bridesmaids, Wanderlust, The Five-Year Engagement, Begin Again, This Is 40, Anchorman 2, and Trainwreck. And that’s just on the movie side. This period also included HBO’s Girls. He was pretty much the first figure since Lorne Michaels to command the American comedy community so singularly, with the accompanying troupe of stars and acolytes. Pretty astounding.

UTA, his agency until this week, rode the wave with Apatow. During that run, it signed Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, Issa Rae, Paul Rudd, Bill Hader, and a bunch of others, becoming a force in comedy, especially when agents Jason Heyman and Martin Lesak came over from CAA in 2015. UTA grew to the point where it was able to raise outside cash and outlast ICM Partners to survive as the third stand-alone, full-service talent agency, albeit smaller in size than CAA and WME. In short: Apatow was a transformational client, as he’s been for Jimmy Miller’s Mosaic, which still reps him in management.

That’s why the split from UTA and Apatow’s lead agent, David Kramer, who has repped the filmmaker for two of those three decades, struck me as a meaningful sign of the times. The Apatow Era of comedy has been effectively over for years now, though many of its stars still thrive. And some might argue that, like Cameron Crowe or James L. Brooks or the Farrellys, Apatow simply got too old (he’s 56) and too rich (he and wife Leslie Mann just bought a $32 million Beverly Hills mansion from a Marciano) to connect with the comedy zeitgeist, to the extent one even exists anymore. 

Maybe, but I don’t think that’s really true. The reality is, Apatow’s recent output—outside of Bubble, and let’s blame that one on Covid brain—isn’t bad. The King of Staten Island, which Covid steered to PVOD, was actually pretty good. It’s the business that’s changed, and the plight of the man, himself, in the current moment says a lot about the state of comedy, in particular, and Hollywood in general.

Who to Blame…

You don’t need me to tell you it’s brutal out there for scripted comedy. Outside of TikTok-fueled flukes like Anyone But You, comedy in movie theaters is basically D.O.A. On TV and streaming, the genre survives as a shadow of its primetime TV heyday. Jerry Seinfeld might blame the decline on “P.C. crap,” and it’s true that a lot of the 2000s-era Apatow jokes—“You know how I know you’re gay?”—wouldn’t fly today. But the real issue is that outside of stand-up—which is booming thanks to Netflix and the promotional power of social media—comedy has shifted online, to TikTok and YouTube and Instagram and podcasts. At the same time, film studios for the most part are making global gotta-see-in-theaters spectacles. Apatow’s Funny People cost about $90 million to make in 2009, and the talent pool shared 20 percent of first-dollar gross, per two sources. Universal would never make that movie on those terms today. 2011’s Bridesmaids cost just over $30 million and grossed $300 million in theaters; it was an even bigger juggernaut on DVD—among the last of the big sellers—generating huge backend. Now, without that home video backstop, and with international prospects dim, who would bother? Add in the fact that streamers want dramas because they play more globally than comedies, and it means far fewer opportunities, even for proven hitmakers.

Also, those recent Apatow misses were just the projects that got made. Behind the scenes, Apatow and his UTA team have been hustling—often with frustrating results, despite Apatow having an active first-look deal at Universal for film and TV. Last fall, Kramer shopped an R-rated script that Apatow planned to direct, starring Zach Galifianakis as a comic actor who is quasi-canceled. Heyday Apatow would’ve sold that project immediately, despite the fact that you and I just cringed a little when we read “quasi-canceled.” 

But Universal’s Donna Langley passed, as she did on The Bubble. According to one buyer who subsequently heard the pitch, a comedy with elements of anti-wokeness felt a bit tone-deaf from a filmmaker who has made untold millions of dollars in the comedy business. When those initial pitches met with a lukewarm response, Galifianakis bailed, and the project went back into Apatow’s drawer.

More recently, Apatow was at the center of another R-rated package, written by the Lucas brothers (Judas and the Black Messiah), with Superbad helmer Greg Mottola attached to direct and Katt Williams set to star. Apatow is said to have wanted to do for Williams what he’d done for Rogen, Jonah Hill, Lena Dunham, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Schumer, Pete Davidson, etcetera. Alas, Langley ultimately passed on that one, too, as did others.

Again, it was the economics. Putting Williams, a big stand-up star who is nevertheless untested in movies, in that starring role might have made sense in 2015, when Apatow did it with Schumer on Trainwreck—or even now on a tiny budget. But these days, no theatrical studio head wants to take that risk, lest it become another Easter Sunday, the 2022 bomb starring Jo Koy ($13 million gross), or Apatow’s own Bros ($14 million worldwide). Apatow’s movies are also typically more expensive, given his process, his collaborators, and his deal. That’s no knock on Judd; he’s clearly earned those quotes. But in this climate, a big résumé can sometimes be an impediment if the cost of doing business—or even the perception of the cost of doing business—renders the project infeasible.  

I suspect that’s been the case on the TV front, too. For years, Apatow had a lucrative HBO deal, but he couldn’t get much made so he moved it to Universal in 2022. But it’s been slow there too. Recently, Apatow took out an alluring package with Ben Stiller attached to star, Mike Judge directing, and Brent Forrester (The Office) writing. Apatow is said to have expected a series commitment, if not two seasons guaranteed, which would have been reasonable in the Peak TV era with that level of talent attached. But these days, it’s far from automatic. And those big-ticket elements drive up the costs: $7 million or $8 million an episode for a 10-episode comedy with a two-season commitment—that’s a $140 million expense. (I’m estimating based on comps.) Apple, which is still doing big packages and has a Stiller relationship via Severance, expressed interest in that project, I’m told, but Apple wants to develop the script, or to make a pilot before greenlighting the series. That’s a big ego hit for the talent, so we’ll see if it happens.   

Given all that, is it any wonder that Apatow wants a fresh start? I’m told he’s had many tough conversations recently with the UTA team about the realities of the business these days. And given his past success, it was hard for Judd to accept that new normal. I get it. With these stark realities and the aging of some of the major figures of the past 15 years, I think we’re actually on the verge of a bunch of big names changing up their teams. Stiller also just left UTA; he landed at WME, which will meet with Apatow, along with CAA. Producer Greg Berlanti moved from WME to CAA when it became clear that The CW, his patron network, was eliminating scripted shows. Kevin Hart went from UTA to WME. All of this is understandable. The bursting of the content bubble is causing everyone to freak out. Nobody wants to blame themselves, or the business, so who’s left? You blame your agent.