How Do You Make Teen Comedies Today? Buy a High School.
A former school outside Syracuse, N.Y., has been transformed into American High, a production hub for inexpensive films aimed at streaming platforms.,
A former school is once again home to high school drama of the sort generally captured in R-rated teenage comedies.Credit…Libby March for The New York Times
LIVERPOOL, N.Y. — 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 quad. 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.
Then there’s another interruption to their moment. The director, Sammi Cohen, yells cut. An actor, Tyler Alvarez, asks for another take. “One more, real quick,” he says.
This is an early fall 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 inconspicuously 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 lesbian love story about an aspiring young artist who’s forced to join her high school track team.
He nodded along with the action and laughed as the jokes landed. (“If you go down, I’m going down with you … like the Titanic,” generated a particular chuckle.)
Mr. Garelick, best known as the director of “The Wedding Ringer” and the screenwriter of “The Break Up,” 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 financial and cultural hits like “American Pie” and “Can’t Hardly Wait,” films that themselves were grabbing the baton from 1980s John Hughes classics.
Studios, focused on special effects-laden blockbusters that make going to the movie theater into an event, don’t 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 $170 million in worldwide grosses. Yet fast forward a decade to the female version of that gross-out comedy, the Olivia Wilde-directed “Booksmart,” which was beloved by critics and also featured an up-and-coming cast, but only earned $25 million in box office receipts. It all looks a bit too perilous for the big studios.
Chris Weitz, the co-director of “American Pie” and one of the producers of Ms. Cohen’s film, attributes the shift to technology that puts audiences in control.
“It was one thing when the gatekeepers, usually old fogies, 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 landscape in mind, Mr. Garelick decided to make the films really inexpensively on his own. If done correctly, they could easily be funneled 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.
Mr. Garelick would have an abandoned school.
“That’s when I had my ‘aha moment'” he said. “This is how I’m going to make my high school movies. Nobody out there is making them. Now is the time to get into it.”
In today’s complex content ecosystem, studios are spending more and more to lure general audiences to theaters with blockbuster franchise films while the streamers are primarily trying to keep their fragmented audiences glued to their services by offering niche content. Teen comedies might not have enough consistent commercial potential for the studios, but Mr. Garelick 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 in almost every teen comedy: 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, Mr. Garelick and his then assistant and now producing partner, Will Phelps, 30, flew to Syracuse and drove to Liverpool, where Mr. Garelick saw the 89-year old A.V. Zogg School, a regal-looking institution that occupies an entire block in a tree-lined neighborhood. 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 $1 million in 2017, it was Mr. Garelick’s.
Selling American High
To sell his idea to investors, Mr. Garelick made a sizzle reel of his favorite high school films (“American Pie,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) — to show that every high school movie has the same basic locations — and took his pitch to the studios, independent financiers, anyone really who was willing to listen to his proposal. He was going to make three movies that looked as if they cost $30 million each but would only cost $8 million. The producer Mickey Liddell and his LD Entertainment bit, and American High was in business.
He also had to sell it to his new neighbors. Early on, Mr. Garelick discovered the area wasn’t zoned for filming and the only way he was going to get the city’s approval was if he offered a trade school in addition to a production office. He also had to get buy-in from the community, so he and Mr. Phelps held town hall meetings where residents could voice any and all concerns: Would there be a lot of noise? What about the lights? One man was worried that the production would snap up all the barbers and he wouldn’t have a place to get his hair cut. After sifting through a year of red tape, American High was a go.
The first two movies were small. “Holly Slept Over” cost only $500,000 while “Banana Split” was done for $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. The latest film being directed by Ms. Cohen marks American High’s fifth production for Hulu. Others include “Plan B,” which debuted this year to strong reviews; “The Binge,” which Mr. Garelick directed; “The Ultimate Playlist of Noise”; and “Sex Appeal,” which has yet to come out. (A sequel to “The Binge” is set to begin production in January. “It’s our first franchise,” Mr. Garelick joked.)
Mr. Garelick’s belief in the potential of this particular slice of American movies is based on his study of the Strauss-Howe generational theory — the notion that distinct groups throughout history share characteristics and values that cycle anew every 18 to 20 years. But audiences are more fragmented today than they were when “American Pie” came out and caught the cultural zeitgeist. And major studios long ago abandoned genre films for the surer bets of big blockbuster action titles.
“At Hulu, we know that audiences still really want those genres, so something like a young adult title or a romantic comedy — that is something the audiences are still really clamoring for,” Brian Henderson, Hulu’s senior vice president of content programming and partnerships, said in an interview. “That’s a perfect place for Hulu to step in and bring those kinds of films to streaming audiences.”
The new class
“How many American High productions have you worked on?” Mr. Garelick asks every crew member he runs into while showing guests around the American High campus. “Nine,” said the costumer Celine Rahman. “Seven,” the location manager Emily Campbell said. In between working on the scripts and putting the films together, Mr. Garelick takes a lot of pride in having transformed his ragtag crew of recent college graduates into a professional operation that can handle bigger budgets and more complex shoots.
Some actors have appeared in multiple films, like Mr. Alvarez, 23. “They make it so much fun, and I think that’s when you get the best work,” said Mr. Alvarez, whose previous production, “Sid is Dead,” about a social outcast who gets the class bully suspended has yet to debut. He mentioned the traditional end-of-production parties, which include a ritual where people attempt to throw a fire extinguisher through a wall. Not all the actors were as enthusiastic.
“Love the people. Love the script. Hate the location,” quipped the YouTube content creator and actress Teala Dunn. “Terrible food. Terrible bugs.”
This all gives the American High set the feel of a well-run summer camp more than a high-stress production environment. Part of that is the slew of young people traipsing around, part is the environment that Mr. Garelick and Mr. Phelps have cultivated where the majority of the work is done before shooting begins. Once the cameras roll, they let the directors do their job.
“There is a reason why Sam was given $7 million to make a movie,” Mr. Garelick said of Ms. Cohen, a veteran television director who is making her feature directorial debut with the current production, which is still untitled. “The biggest challenge for us is getting the script and the movie to a point where it’s awesome enough for somebody to say, ‘Here’s a lot of money to go make it.’ Once everything is put together, it’s really the director’s choice to do what she wants to do, especially on a movie like this. I don’t want to have a lot of input.”
Natalie Morales confirms Mr. Garelick’s approach. The actress best known for her role as Lucy Santo Domingo in TV’s “Parks and Recreation” directed “Plan B” in 2020 after enduring six months of delays because of Covid. What she found surprised her, especially since, she said, Mr. Garelick and Mr. Phelps can initially come off more as “fun-loving bros” than serious businessmen.
“Jeremy and Will were so trusting of me and so willing to support me,” she said in a recent interview. “That’s not the experience you typically get with men who consider themselves more experienced than you.”
“Plan B” stars Kuhoo Verma and Victoria Moroles as two teenagers who must cross the state lines of South Dakota to find a Plan B pill after a regrettable sexual encounter. And it represents the epitome of the American High ethos: the high school experience told from a different point of view. In this case, it involves a strait-laced Indian girl who’s always expected to do the right thing, and her friend Lupe, a wild child whose sexuality may not align with her family’s expectations. Hulu said that “Plan B” was a hit not just with younger audiences, but with older women as well.
High school movies rarely deviate from a specific formula. Most chronicle the agony and ecstasy of adolescence: falling in love, tasting your first sip of alcohol, realizing your parents aren’t perfect, discovering what kind of music you love. Those themes play out in American High’s movies, too, but through a new lens.
“We all grew up loving John Hughes movies,” Mr. Garelick said. “And we loved them because they’re universal high school stories but when we look back at them, they’re all about a white guy who wants to get laid by the prom queen and winds up with their best friend, or something like that. And the people of color or people from different backgrounds were either in the background or were the butt of the joke. In our movies, they are our leads, and they’re often the ones who wrote these stories.”
Of the 11 American High movies that have been shot at the school since 2017, seven have been made by first-time filmmakers, three of them women.
“They could have done the thing where they buy the school and they set this all up for themselves,” Ms. Morales said. “That’s not what they’re doing.”
A different kind of film school
Before American High’s arrival, the Syracuse film commission struggled to attract productions to the area, despite offering sizable tax credits. The inclement weather and meager crew base were major obstacles.
Since Mr. Garelick entered the picture, things have changed.
“It was a total 180,” the Syracuse film commissioner Eric Vinal said. “We went from very much a gig economy with people working pretty sporadically in the industry to really having full-time, secure positions.”
Mr. Vinal estimates that each film shot leaves 70 percent of its budget in the region, between the local crew members it hires to the money spent in restaurants and hotels. American High’s movies initially cost $1 million to $2 million and have now expanded to the $7 million to $9 million range, with roughly 70 crew members, and going from nonunion crews to almost all union employees.
Pulling from local colleges like Syracuse University, Onondaga Community College, Ithaca College and Le Moyne College, American High and Syracuse Studios, the company’s production services operation, employs 10 students on each production — students who might otherwise have to move to Los Angeles or New York for film jobs.
“It was a fantastic idea for the kind of thing that we’re doing here, which is educating storytellers of the future,” said Michael Schoonmaker, the chairman of the television, radio and film department at Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. “One of our advantages here in the frozen tundra of the snow capital city of the world, is that, you know, we’ve got them captive but also we’re pretty far away from everything. Jeremy’s program connects the two.”
Will Sacca, 24, first met Mr. Garelick in the spring of 2017 when the director came to his intro to screenwriting class and pitched American High directly to the students. Mr. Sacca became one of the first summer interns and was charged with reading and analyzing comedy scripts for what could be American High’s first features.
After graduation, Mr. Sacca returned to American High and worked in a variety of different departments: locations, production, accounting. He then became Mr. Garelick’s assistant before moving back into development, where now, as the head of the department, he manages a team of readers, including college interns who provide initial reaction to scripts.
“I’m really fortunate,” Mr. Sacca said. “If I was at any of the mini-majors in L.A. or one of the big studios, I would be, at best, an executive assistant.”
Ms. Rahman’s trajectory was similar. A recent graduate, she was living in New York City trying her hand at acting when she made a decision to return home to Syracuse. First she got a job as a background actor on American High’s second feature, “Banana Split.” That resulted in a move into the costume department, where she’s been ever since.
“We’ve got Syracuse University and this really great film school there and you would think that this kind of thing would have been done a long time ago,” she said. “It seems that people are just kind of realizing, ‘Oh wait, there’s a place to make movies here and it’s sustainable.'”
‘The Rah-Rah of it all’
Near the end of a long day of filming, Mr. Garelick sat in American High’s gym, watching a scene unfold and ruminating on his own high school experience. Not surprising, he loved it. Growing up in New City, N.Y., he was a football player, a member of the school’s theater 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. Mr. Garelick and Mr. Phelps have also trained enough crew members that they can hand the reins of a production to others and get to work on the next American High film or other projects they’re involved with. (Mr. Garelick recently decamped to Hawaii to begin preproduction on the sequel to the Netflix film “Murder Mystery.”)
What weighs on Mr. Garelick now is just how big of a beast he’s created.
“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.” He acknowledged that things have become easier in the last year as more production has come to the area and his crew members have become experienced enough to get jobs on non-American High projects.
It also helps that immersing themselves in the world of R-rated teen comedies has made them experts.
“We’ve gotten really good at knowing all the talent in this age range and in this space,” Mr. Phelps said. “We know all the scripts that are floating around because we’ve probably read them all.”