We talk a lot about the big tentpole movies here at Pajiba - your Suicide Squads and your Star Warses - because we are a pop culture site, and that it what pop culture sites do. We also write about wrestling, I think because Joe Starr has blackmail on Dustin about a Ryan Reynolds-shaped body pillow, I don’t know. But I know Pajiba readers are eminently sophisticated lovers of more independent releases, as well, which is why today I’m going to talk to you about the strange case of a little movie called Balls Out.
This is the poster for Balls Out.
Stay with me.
Now, for a little background: Back in 2014, a little movie called Intramural debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. Directed by the Austin-based filmmaker Andrew Disney, it’s a sports spoof about a fifth-year college senior, Caleb (Jake Lacy of Obvious Child and Carol), who, faced with impending adulthood, decides to get the old intramural football (aka “flag football,” aka football played by people who aren’t good at sports) team together for one last hurrah.
(Ignore the trailer voiceover. That’s a good general rule.)
Things get a bit (ahem) nuts. This is a weird, fun movie. If you’ve ever wanted to see Tigh from Battlestar Galactica tell Jake Lacy “Bet I could bounce a bouillon cube off your butt,” you’re probably not going to see that anywhere else.
In addition to Lacy, Intramural boasts three SNLers—Jay Pharoah as a sports announcer, Beck Bennett as the QB of Caleb’s rival team, and your girlfriend Kate McKinnon as Vicky, Caleb’s overly controlling girlfriend.
This is a funny movie with recognizable people, is my point. It was never going to make a ton of money, but it’s the sort of thing that can eventually find its audience. Which makes it a little odd that Orion Pictures, the MGM subsidiary that acquired Intramural’s rights after Tribeca, changed its title to Balls Out and decided to market it as a Van Wilder-esque sex comedy, despite it not actually having any sex. Let me be clear: I saw this movie before the title change. I probably never would have seen it after, because with that title and that poster, it looks like low-grade RedBox shit. Balls Out had a tiny theatrical release last summer before making its debut on various online platforms—it’s currently free to watch if you have Amazon Prime, and it’s on available on Netflix in several countries, though not the U.S..
I had the chance to speak Balls Out writer/producer Bradley Jackson about the film and its marketing misfortunes; he’s incredibly candid about a side of the industry that we don’t get to see all that often. An abbreviated version of that conversation is below.
This is a pretty small movie. How’d you end up with three SNL castmembers?
Kate was the first person to come on-board, which was amazing. Our five principals—Kate, Jake Lacy, Nick Kocher, Beck Bennett, and Nikki Reed—were all kind of feeling it out. With Kate, it was like, oh, she’s interested, she just wants to make sure that you aren’t casting, like, your uncles as co-stars or something like that. Actors all want to work together, so when she found out Jake Lacy was doing it, she was in.
Beck Bennett was not on SNL at the time. And we didn’t get Jay Pharoah until about two and a half weeks into production. We thought we were going to be the hot ticket, because we were like, man, we have one SNL person, we’ve got it made in the shade. And then, about a week into production, we got word that Beck had been picked to come out and audition for SNL. And so we were like, wow, can we have two SNL people? And then, about a week later, we found out Jay Pharoah wants to be in it, so we were like, we definitely have two people. And then the day we wrapped production, the word got out that Beck had been cast.
And Jake Lacy is starting to blow up now, too.
That guy is a talent factory. And, honestly, it’s so funny, because - he says this about himself - he says, ‘I look like a boring accountant.’ But he has this weird, quirky nature of a veteran improv comedian. He could go toe-to-toe with Kate McKinnon at improv any day of the week.
I assume there was a lot of improv on set, given the people you have.
Yeah, yeah. Some very amazing improv moments. One of my favorite ones is a line from Beck, when he says “I’m going to rip out of your colon and use it as a spooky eye-patch.”
Kate McKinnon’s great, too. Her role needed some weirdness, because it’s the stick-in-the-mud girlfriend character, and oftentimes they don’t get a lot to do, comedy-wise.
That’s why, honestly, she was kind of our first and only pick. Like, if she says no, we’re going to be screwed, because we need somebody that like isn’t your typical stick-in-the-mud wife character. Everybody in this movie is crazy, except for Jake Lacy and [female lead] Nikki Reed. And so we need actors that can make that crazy be funny. Kate was the person that we knew was going to be the biggest deal of anyone.
I have to ask about the branding thing. Because you have this really funny movie, you have recognizable actors - what happened?
We had really good reviews coming out of Tribeca, MGM came with an offer, and we were excited. Everything was looking good. We went through the normal process of getting everything together and all that good stuff. All I can really tell you is about six months after we knew we were going to be going with MGM—the lawyers do their things with the contracts, that always takes longer than it should, but that’s just how it happens—I remember I was on vacation with my family, I’d gotten really sick with a stomach virus and I got an email from one of my other producers on the project, and all it said was: “They’re changing the name to Balls Out.”
So you didn’t see the poster at that point.
Well, they’d sent over that poster with the butt on it. I’ll go on record saying I don’t like it. I don’t think anybody does like it.
It’s a stupid poster. It completely misrepresents what the movie is.
I agree. They sent that poster over with our title, Intramural. We had no rights. They owned the movie, they can do whatever they want. And they more or less said, in no uncertain terms, “You have a broad comedy with no broad comedy stars.” Meaning Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, that type of broad comedy star. I know some people might say Kate McKinnon, but [at the time] she wasn’t a Ghostbuster. Your uncle hadn’t heard of Kate McKinnon. I guess we kind of understood that. We tried to fight them, but they weren’t going to give any ground. And, hey, MGM’s been around a lot longer than I have, so maybe they know what they’re doing.
Did they specifically say, “We’re going to market this as a sex comedy”?
Even though there’s not a sex scene in it.
Yeah. We were trying to say, “Hey, we’ve got a cool comedy cast—we’ve got three SNLers; there’s Britanick, this really cool, geeky sketch troupe, two guys from that are in it [Brian McElhaney, who plays Chance the magician, and Nick Kocher, the coach]; we’ve got Jake Lacy, who’s this up-and-coming, leading man Chris Pratt-type. We feel like we could appeal to this indie comedy scene. There’s an audience for it!” And in more or less uncertain terms, they said, “Well, hey, sorry, clever doesn’t sell. Sex does.”
It’s not like a broad Will Ferrell or Kevin Hart movie, anyway. It’s more like a Christopher Guest, ensemble spoof-type thing.
When we were pitching it, before we were making the movie, we were saying it’s Wet Hot American Summer meets Dodgeball. We were trying to get that Wet Hot American Summer-type cast, where it’s like, oh my gosh, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Bradley Cooper. That was our goal. The movie’s been out for a year, and I think we’re halfway there. One of our supporting actors, Gabriel Luna, was just cast as Ghost Rider [in Agents of SHIELD].
[In terms of marketing,] we tried to argue that people are going to see a thumbnail of a girl’s butt with the title “Balls Out,” and if they’re going to watch it because of that, they’re going to think, “I’m going to see some sex scenes in this.” Well, there’s nothing. You see half of Jake Lacy’s butt. The people that will enjoy it won’t watch it because of the poster and the title, and the people that will enjoy it because of the poster and the title will get upset, because nothing in the marketing that they’re seeing is delivered.
There was no back and forth, no “Hey, we have these six poster options”? It was “This is what it is.”
“This is what it is.” Yeah. There was a little bit of a dialogue. I don’t want to paint them as monsters who didn’t return any emails or phone calls.
And you’re on the low end of the totem pole, in terms of MGM releases.
Oh, totally. They’re releasing Spectre and The Hobbit. I get it. I’m not delusional to think that we’re going to get the ultimate boutique release from these guys. I think they genuinely liked our movie. Their enthusiasm was apparent when they saw it at Tribeca. They liked it, but they just didn’t get what it was. They literally saw this as, “This is a Will Ferrell comedy without Will Ferrell. So how do we sell it?”
The thing that’s super confusing to me—we got a really positive New York Times review, and the New York Times reviewer, when he posted about it on social media, actively mocked the marketing. I was like, did they see that? Even the AV Club came out with an article a couple of months ago that mocked the marketing—just saying, “Give this movie a shot. The movie’s not as bad as its marketing.”
And now they released the DVD, and the title’s back to Intramural. So you assume they realize they screwed up.
It’s so confusing! You search for the movie on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB or whatever, and you will find it under Balls Out. But if you go to Wal-Mart and you look for Balls Out, you will not find anything. You will find Intramural. But if you buy Intramural and you put the DVD into the player, the opening title card says Balls Out!
Like how they released Edge of Tomorrow on home video as Live Die Repeat. Commit to something!
That’s honestly the only precedent that I can find for what’s going on here. And that’s a hundred million dollar Tom Cruise movie—that movie’s amazing. It’s just really weird. Our original tagline for Intramural was “The epic sports movie for the guys who don’t deserve one.” To me, that’s the heart of our movie. That was our manifesto. We want to make this movie feel epic and big, like it’s an episode of Friday Night Lights, but these guys are just slapstick, fratty dudes who are playing intramural football. MGM’s new tagline for Balls Out was, “This semester, everyone scores.” The weird thing now is, on our new DVD cover, i’s called Intramural, and there’s no butts. But we have both taglines. On top of the DVD cover it says, “The epic sports movie for the guys who don’t deserve one,” and below it it says, “This semester, everyone scores.” And now, one of our actors pointed out, with no sexy butt on the cover, it just sounds like “everybody’s going to score” a touchdown.
To use a football term—because I am so big into sports [note: I am not]—this project was fumbled all the way through.
I don’t think there was any malice behind it. I don’t think there were trying to screw us. They bought our movie. I would rather have this happen than our movie come out at Tribeca and people hate it and nobody wants to buy it, and I’m trying to sell it out of the back of my car. I want to make it very clear: I don’t really have much ill-will towards MGM. I’m glad they bought our movie. I think it’s kind of funny, now. The first couple of months after it happened, I stewed a little bit. But at the end of the day, they didn’t change a frame of our movie. But I also wanted to shake them up and be like, do you understand that you have a Ghostbuster in your movie? Jake Lacy’s going to be a big star. You’ve got three SNL people, you have these cool comedians that have fans.
There was some crappy horror movie [House At the End of the Street] that Jennifer Lawrence did before The Hunger Games, and when The Hunger Games happened the studio promoted the hell out of that.
Yeah, exactly! And that movie made a little bit of money! Put Kate and Jake and Beck and Nikki and Jay Pharoah on your cover! There are quite a few people out there that will see a cover with those five people on it and say, “Hmm, I might spend four dollars renting this.” But instead, they see this ambiguous butt with a football, and they’re like, “I don’t want to watch this—”
It looks like a National Lampoon sequel.
It looks like National Lampoon Presents Roofie Patrol or National Lampoon Presents Bikini Island or something like that.
[Incidentally, these are the “related movies” that come up on Amazon Prime.]
Have you started getting traction on VOD? It seems like a Hot Rod situation—that didn’t do well in theaters, but people started discovering it afterwards. Popstar: Don’t Stop Never Stopping will be the same way, probably.
Our dream is that this movie is like MacGruber or Hot Rod or Popstar. I didn’t see Wet Hot American Summer until it had been out for four years. I was a big comedy nerd in high school, but I remember being like, “I don’t want to rent a movie called Wet Hot American Summer. What if my parents see the Blockbuster rental and they think I’m renting a porno?”
[But] we’ve only been out for a year. I think it’s just going to take time. The more we can hopefully get it out there that, ignore the marketing, if you want to watch a funny comedy with up-and-coming people who are going to be huge stars in five years, this is that comedy. It doesn’t take itself seriously. We have a character get shot in one scene and then literally ten seconds later he’s jogging on the beach. We are not playing hard and fast with the rules. We are goofing around here. We are just trying to make people laugh. I think, hopefully in a couple more years, it’s going to start moving the needle a bit.
Tell me about this other project you’ve got coming up [Crunch Time, a webseries with video game-centric comedy group Rooster Teeth].
It’s premiering on Rooster Teeth’s premium VOD channel on September 11th. It’s a six-episode high concept sci-fi comedy series. It stars Sam Levine from Freaks & Geeks. And Nick Rutherford, who was in Balls Out. Andrew Disney and I got that series because the people from Rooster Teeth saw Intramural and really loved it. So we pitched them this crazy, outside the box sci-fi comedy. I feel like it’s the type of production value you would see on Comedy Central or FX. We think we have something special. It’s pretty out there, pretty weird. We have Casper Van Dien playing himself, if you want to see Casper Van Dien in a way you’ve never seen him before.
And there’s not gonna be any women’s butts on the poster.
No butt shots on the poster! We do have Nick Rutherford in a very hilarious leopard-print speedo in one scene. You get Casper Van Diem shirtless twice. There’s one scene where a girl’s kind of in a bra, and that’s about it. We have like 8 scenes of dudes in underwear.