How Are Today’s Teen Comedies Made? Purchase a high school.
American High, a former school in Syracuse, New York, has been turned into a production hub for low-budget films aimed at streaming platforms.
The adolescent pair is reclining on the lawn outside a high school, utilizing the traditional method of making out on the quad during a free moment between classes. A friend runs over, visibly concerned by an on-going incident somewhere, and begs for assistance. The pair unwillingly rises and follows, their backpacks trailing behind them.
Then another interruption occurs in their moment. Sammi Cohen, the director, yells cut. Tyler Alvarez, an actor, requests another take. “Just one more quick,” he says.
This is a typical early fall day at American High, when students return to school. Although the school has been devoid of actual pupils for years, it is once again the setting for high school drama of the type typically shown in R-rated teenage comedies.
Jeremy Garelick, 46, a writer/director/producer and the mastermind of the American High experiment, is sitting inconspicuously in the far corner of that grassy area. 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 is forced to join her high school track team, while wearing an American High baseball cap, red-tinted sunglasses, and a pair of headphones slung around his neck.
He nodded in time with the action and chuckled in response to the jokes. (“If you sink, I’m sinking with you… like the Titanic,” elicited a particular giggle.)
Mr. Garelick, best known for directing “The Wedding Ringer” and writing the screenplay for “The Break Up,” believes the timing is ideal for a spike in hormonal high jinks portrayed on film: teen stories tailored to the Gen Z streaming generation’s sensibilities. After all, it’s been about two decades since tales of love, sex, and related high school humiliations spawned financial and cultural juggernauts like “American Pie” and “Can’t Hardly Wait,” films that in turn inherited the torch from 1980s John Hughes classics.
Studios, whose primary concentration is on special effects-heavy blockbusters that transform going to the movies into an experience, do not share his convictions. They are now avoiding this type of low-budget picture due to the high marketing expenditures associated with converting it into a box office blockbuster — and the dangerous notion of selling something to the fickle teen audience.
In 2007, the comedy “Superbad,” starring then-unknowns Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, became a critical success, grossing more than $170 million worldwide. However, fast forward a decade to the female adaptation of that gross-out comedy, Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart,” which was praised by reviewers and starred an up-and-coming ensemble but grossed just $25 million at the box office. Everything appears to be a little too risky for the major studios.
Chris Weitz, co-director of “American Pie” and one of the film’s producers, blames the shift to technology that empowers audiences.
“It was one thing when censors, typically elderly fogies, dictated the type of stuff that would be released about teenagers,” he explained. “Nowaday, kids can obtain a variety of self-produced content about themselves, which provides them with a stronger sense of authenticity than anything a feature picture producer could concoct.”
With that backdrop in mind, Mr. Garelick decided to make the films himself on a shoestring budget. They might easily be routed onto streaming platforms, which are continuously on the lookout for new content, particularly that which appeals to the elusive teen audience.
He calculated that by shooting two films consecutively in the same area, he could save one-third of his production expenditures. If he shoots three, he has a chance to save half. He may follow in the footsteps of the now-defunct film studio New Line, adapting the “Lord of the Rings” cost-cutting strategy to the world of teen humor. Peter Jackson drew inspiration for his Hobbit-centered epic from New Zealand’s lush environment.
Mr. Garelick’s school would be deserted.
“That was my ‘aha moment,'” he explained. “This is how I intend to create my high school films. Nobody makes them. This is the time to get started.”
In today’s complex content environment, studios are increasingly investing in blockbuster franchise films to get general audiences to cinemas, while streamers are largely focused on retaining their splintered fans through niche content. Teen comedies may not have much commercial promise for studios, but Mr. Garelick reasoned that if he could provide a steady supply of films, a streaming service would undoubtedly bite. And if he can locate a site where he can take advantage of local government tax benefits, his dollars will go further and he will benefit from the local community’s support.
To begin, he required a school, something brick and grand, both lived-in and adaptable to any high school setting. He considered the standard settings for practically every teen comedy: the school gymnasium, the cafeteria, the classrooms, the halls, and the auditorium.
Additionally, it had to be located in a state that offered substantial tax benefits. Mr. Garelick and Will Phelps, 30, his former assistant and now producing partner, flew to Syracuse and drove to Liverpool, where Mr. Garelick viewed the 89-year-old A.V. Zogg School, a regal-looking institution that fills a full block in a tree-lined neighborhood. It has served as a middle school and a high school, as well as a community church, and was most recently owned by a Thai businessman.
It was Mr. Garelick’s for $1 million in 2017.
Selling the American Dream
To pitch his idea to investors, Mr. Garelick created a sizzle reel featuring his favorite high school films (“American Pie,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) — to demonstrate that every high school film features the same basic locations — and took his pitch to studios, independent financiers, and anyone else willing to listen. He intended to make three films that would appear to cost $30 million apiece but would cost only $8 million. American High was born, thanks to producer Mickey Liddell and his LD Entertainment company.
Additionally, he was required to sell it to his new neighbors. Mr. Garelick quickly realized that the area was not zoned for filming and that the only way he could obtain approval from the city was to establish a trade school in addition to a production office. He also needed community support, which is why he and Mr. Phelps conducted town hall meetings during which locals could vent any and all concerns: Would there be excessive noise? What about the illuminations? One man was concerned that the production will eliminate all barbers, leaving him without a place to get his hair trimmed. After a year of red tape, American High was approved.
The first two films were brief. “Holly Slept Over” was completed for less than $500,000, whereas “Banana Split” cost $1.2 million.
Then American High collaborated with Pete Davidson and Jon Cryer on “Big Time Adolescence.” The irreverent comedy premiered at Sundance in 2019 and was acquired by Hulu, kicking off a collaboration with the streaming service. The firms have now agreed on a licensing deal for eight films. American High’s sixth film for Hulu will be directed by Ms. Cohen. Others include “Plan B,” which premiered to rave reviews earlier this year; “The Binge,” which Mr. Garelick directed; “The Ultimate Playlist of Noise,” which has yet to be released; and “Sex Appeal,” which has yet to be released. (Production on a sequel to “The Binge” is scheduled to begin in January. Mr. Garelick remarked, “This is our first franchise.”)
Mr. Garelick’s optimism for this segment of American cinema is founded on his research into the Strauss-Howe generational theory — the idea that various groups throughout history share characteristics and values that cycle every 18 to 20 years. However, audiences now are more dispersed than they were when “American Pie” hit the cultural zeitgeist. And major studios have long abandoned genre films in favor of the more certain bets of big-budget action flicks.
“At Hulu, we recognize that audiences continue to crave those genres, so something like a young adult title or a romantic comedy is something that audiences continue to demand,” Brian Henderson, Hulu’s senior vice president of content programming and partnerships, said in an interview. “That is an ideal opportunity for Hulu to enter the fray and provide those kind of films to streaming audiences.”
The newly created class
“How many performances of American High have you worked on?” Mr. Garelick inquires of every crew member he encounters while touring the American High campus with guests. “Nine,” costumer Celine Rahman stated. “Seven,” Emily Campbell, the location manager, stated. Mr. Garelick takes great pride in having converted his ragged team of recent college grads into a professional organization capable of handling larger budgets and more sophisticated projects.
Certain actors, such as Mr. Alvarez, 23, have appeared in multiple films. “They make it so enjoyable, and I believe that is when the best work is produced,” said Mr. Alvarez, whose previous movie, “Sid is Dead,” about a social outcast who gets the class bully suspended, has yet to premiere. He referred to the customary end-of-production parties, which feature a rite in which participants attempt to toss a fire extinguisher through a wall. Not every actor was as enthused.
“I adore people. The script is fantastic. “I despise the location,” teased Teala Dunn, a YouTube content maker and performer. “Awful food. Horrible insects.”
This all contributes to the set’s seeming more like a well-run summer camp than a high-stress production setting. Part of that is due to the swarm of young people milling about, and part is due to the climate Mr. Garelick and Mr. Phelps have created, where the majority of work is completed prior to the start of shooting. Once the cameras start rolling, they hand over control to the filmmakers.
“There is a reason Sam was given $7 million to do a film,” Mr. Garelick said of Ms. Cohen, an experienced television filmmaker who is directing her feature directorial debut with the yet untitled project. “Our greatest obstacle is getting the script and film to a stage where they are good enough for someone to say, ‘Here’s a lot of money to make it.’ Once everything is in place, the filmmaker truly has the freedom to do whatever she wants, even more so on a film like this. I’m not looking for a lot of input.”
Natalie Morales echoes Mr. Garelick’s assessment. The actress best known for her role as Lucy Santo Domingo on the television series “Parks and Recreation” directed “Plan B” in 2020 following a six-month delay due to Covid. What she discovered astounded her, particularly given that Mr. Garelick and Mr. Phelps originally come across as “fun-loving brothers” rather than serious executives.
“Jeremy and Will had such faith in me and were so willing to assist me,” she recently stated in an interview. “That is not the typical experience with males who regard themselves as more experienced than you.”
Kuhoo Verma and Victoria Moroles star in “Plan B,” a film about two teenagers who must cross the state lines of South Dakota in search of a Plan B pill following a disastrous sexual experience. And it epitomizes the American High ethos: the high school experience portrayed from a unique perspective. In this scenario, it involves a strict Indian girl who is constantly expected to do the right thing and Lupe, a wild child whose sexuality may not conform to her family’s expectations. According to Hulu, “Plan B” was a popular with not only younger people, but also with older ladies.
High school films rarely stray from a predetermined format. The majority of them recount the misery and excitement of adolescence: falling in love, experiencing your first drink of alcohol, learning your parents are not ideal, discovering your favorite genre of music. These themes are also explored in American High’s films, although through a different viewpoint.
“We were all raised on John Hughes films,” Mr. Garelick explained. “And we loved them because they’re universal high school stories, but in retrospect, they’re all about a white guy who wants to be laid by the prom queen and ends up with their best buddy, or something along those lines.” And individuals of color or people from diverse origins were either ignored or became the punch line. They are our protagonists in our films, and they are frequently the ones who write these stories.”
Since 2017, seven of the eleven films shot at American High have been directed by first-time directors, three of which are female.
“They could have done what they did and bought the school and set everything up for themselves,” Ms. Morales explained. “That is not their intent.”
A unique film school
Prior to the entrance of American High, the Syracuse film commission struggled to recruit movies despite offering substantial tax benefits. The bad weather and a depleted crew base posed significant hurdles.
Things have altered dramatically since Mr. Garelick entered the picture.
“It was a complete 180,” said Eric Vinal, Syracuse’s film commissioner. “We transitioned from a largely gig economy with people working in the business on a periodic basis to having full-time, stable roles.”
Mr. Vinal estimates that each film shoot leaves 70% of its spending in the region, from the crew members hired locally to the money spent in restaurants and motels. American High’s films began with a budget of $1 million to $2 million and have now grown to between $7 million and $9 million, employing over 70 crew members and transitioning from nonunion crews to almost entirely union staff.
American High and Syracuse Studios, the company’s production services operation, recruit students from local colleges such as Syracuse University, Onondaga Community College, Ithaca College, and Le Moyne College. Each production employs ten students — students who would otherwise have to relocate to Los Angeles or New York for film jobs.
“It was an excellent idea for what we’re doing here, which is teaching the next generation of storytellers,” said Michael Schoonmaker, chairman of the television, radio, and cinema department at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. “One of our benefits here in the icy tundra of the world’s snow capital city is that we have them captive but are also somewhat isolated from everything. Jeremy’s program establishes a link between the two.”
Mr. Garelick met Will Sacca, 24, in the spring of 2017 when the director visited his introduction to screenwriting class and presented American High straight to the students. Mr. Sacca was one of the company’s initial summer interns, tasked with reading and assessing comedy scripts for what could be the company’s first feature film.
Mr. Sacca returned to American High after graduation and worked in a variety of various departments, including locations, production, and accounting. He then worked as Mr. Garelick’s assistant before returning to development, where he currently oversees a staff of readers, including college students, who provide early reactions to screenplays.
“I consider myself quite fortunate,” Mr. Sacca stated. “If I worked for one of the mini-majors in Los Angeles or one of the major studios, I would be an executive assistant at best.”
Ms. Rahman’s path was comparable. She was a new graduate living in New York City and attempting her hand at acting when she decided to return to her hometown of Syracuse. She began her career by working as a background actor on American High’s second feature film, “Banana Split.” This led in her being transferred to the costume department, where she has remained since.
“We have Syracuse University and a really fantastic film school there, and you’d think this sort of stuff would have been done years ago,” she explained. “It appears as though people are suddenly recognizing, ‘Oh wait, there is a viable film industry here.'”
‘The Rah-Rah of it all’
Mr. Garelick sat in American High’s gym near the end of a long day of filming, watching a scene emerge and reflecting on his own high school experience. Unsurprisingly, he adored it. He was a football player, a member of the school’s theater group, and class president while growing up in New City, New York. “I adored the Rah-Rah element of it all,” he explained.
He now gets to relive that sensation on a daily basis.
American High has the resources necessary to produce five films per year. Mr. Garelick and Mr. Phelps have also trained enough crew members to take over control of a production and focus on the next American High picture or other projects. (Mr. Garelick relocated to Hawaii recently to begin preproduction on the follow-up to Netflix’s “Murder Mystery.”)
What is weighing on Mr. Garelick at the moment is the magnitude of the beast he has produced.
“We both feel responsible for a large number of people, and it puts a lot of strain on us,” he explained. “However, it’s also extremely fulfilling.” He noted that things have gotten better over the last year as more production has moved to the area and his crew members have gained sufficient expertise to land positions on non-American High productions.
Additionally, their immersion in the world of R-rated teen comedies has honed their skills.
“We’ve become quite adept at identifying all of the talent in this age range and space,” Mr. Phelps explained. “We are familiar with all of the scripts going around since we have probably read them all.”