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Editorials

Road Trip to Joker: The Success of Todd Phillips

March 5, 2020
Todd Phillips Films

Love him or hate him, director Todd Phillips has certainly made a very successful niche for himself. Today I’ll be looking over the controversial director’s career. Beginning with an overview of his work before looking into his most acclaimed films, The Hangover and Joker and how they succeeded at the box office, with critics, and for the director himself.

Filmography

Phillips broke into narrative features with 2000’s Road Trip. A sex comedy that made over $119 million dollars at the box office against a $16 million budget. He followed that up with other successes like 2003s gross-out comedy Old School. 2004s movie adaptation of Starsky & Hutch. 2010s buddy road trip film Due Date. 2016s biographical black comedy War Dogs. And The Hangover sequels, which while never earning the acclaim of the original, were still financially successful.

Comparatively, Phillips’ only unsuccessful movie is School of Scoundrels which earned $24 million against a $35 million budget. However inarguably his most successful ventures are The Hangover and Joker.

The leads of The Hangover (2009)
The leads of The Hangover (2009) [Source: Standard.co.uk]

Success and Acclaim: The Hangover & Joker

The Hangover became the highest-grossing R rated comedy of all time during its release (not adjusted for inflation). While this record was later surpassed The Hangover was also celebrated by audiences and critics (Rated 7.7 on IMDb and 78% on Rotten Tomatoes).

Meanwhile, Joker has become the highest-grossing R rated movie of all time, making over $1 billion worldwide. Despite mixed critical reception (68% on Rotten Tomatoes) Joker still received great acclaim. Winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and being nominated for many Best Film and Best Director awards. Audiences also roundly embraced the film (it’s currently rated 8.6 on IMDb and is ranked 46th in the IMDb Top 250).

Both films are examples of popular film trends from their time. The Hangover owes some of its success to the popular raunchy comedies of Judd Apatow. And Joker owes a lot to the domination of comic book movies at the box office.

But both films also have something unique, ambiguity. While The Hangover was a raunchy comedy it also had a grimy presentation. This allowed people to view the film as a condemnation of the activities the characters get involved with. Thus even people unsympathetic to the characters could enjoy laughing at them. Meanwhile, Joker presented its villain as somewhat sympathetic by showcasing how many facets of American culture helped to turn him evil but also presented his actions as shocking. Meaning the film functioned as both a disturbing look inside a killer’s mind but also an exploration of the factors that turned him into one. This ambiguous presentation allows for audiences to engage with these films in different ways. And gives critics a lot to analyze. Which is likely something else that lead to their success.

Frightening killer or victim of society? Joker (2019)
Frightening killer or victim of society? Joker (2019) [Source: Variety]

Todd Phillips’ Risks

Surprisingly Warner Brothers were initially unsupportive of both films. They didn’t want to give The Hangover a $35 million budget, because of its R rating (often not as successful as PG-13 movies) and because the leads were relatively unknown at the time. And even though Joker was a sure-fire hit due to the main characters’ comic popularity, Warner Brothers still attempted to prevent the project being made by giving Phillips a relatively small budget of $55 million.

But this ended up paying off well for Phillips. Because of Warner’s reluctance to finance The Hangover Phillips gave up his directing salary to help make the film and asked for 16% of the films gross. Meaning his pay went from $6.5 million to $75 million. And Phillips took a smaller salary on Joker, again asking for a percentage of the gross. Many publications estimate he will make $100 million from it.

Controversial director Todd Phillip
Controversial director Todd Phillips [Source: NME.com]

Conclusion

In the end, Todd Phillips knows how to get moviegoers talking and how to make a success of it. By using successful formulas his films have struck a note with audiences. And the well-constructed morally ambiguous presentation of Hangover and Joker managed to appeal to many different audiences and critics alike. And thanks to their success and the risks Phillips took to make his two best films he’s now laughing all the way to the bank. What a Joker.   

Also Read: The Unique Style of Wes Anderson

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Josh Greally
Writer and filmmaker from Chesterfield. I have a masters in directing film and television and have written film reviews for several smaller sites in the past. Films are my life, but I also enjoy writing, reading, listening to music and debating.

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