His Films Are Low on Taste, High on Profits EAT YOUR HEARTS OUT, MERCHANT AND IVORY
By Tim Carvell

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you want to make a hit movie. If you have big money to burn, you can buy yourself Tom Hanks, computer-generated dinosaurs, or a giant sinking ship. Or all three. But what if you don't have $100 million to throw around? What then?

Have you considered the box-office magic of 12-year-old humor?

You know: jokes about body fluids, vomit, pet abuse, the elderly, and the kind of words that can pitch 12-year-olds into fits of giggles. That is how Bob Simonds, 34, has become one of the more successful producers in Hollywood today. Critics may not be fond of him (after seeing Simonds' hit The Wedding Singer, Roger Ebert asked, "Did anybody, at any stage, give the story the slightest thought?" and a New York Times review of his film Dirty Work called it "terminally stupid," "brain dead," "leaden," "taste-deprived," "lifeless," and a "desert of comedy"), but Simonds' films have delighted teenage audiences and studio accountants alike. "Arrested development is an essential characteristic for Bob," says Casey Silver, who as chairman of Universal Pictures signed Simonds to a first-look contract with the studio earlier this year. Simonds may not produce blockbusters--not one of his 11 movies has passed $100 million at the U.S. box office--but then, his films usually cost only $10 million to $35 million to make, as opposed to the $60 million to $200 million budgets on most action or sci-fi epics. It's a strategy, he says, that's "like NASA: better, faster, cheaper."

Simonds launched his career in 1990 with Problem Child, about a 7-year-old who devises grotesque torments for nuns, animals, and assorted others. Despite scathing notices, the film grossed $50 million domestically--an impressive return, considering it cost only $20 million to make and market. "It didn't so much take people by surprise as enrage them," Simonds says. "I read a lot of articles by critics who were actually angry that the movie was making so much money. It was like, 'Please, don't go see this film.'"

That film set the tone for Simonds' oeuvre, which consists almost entirely of lowbrow comedies with popular--yet cheap--stars, like Saturday Night Live's Norm Macdonald (Dirty Work) and HBO standup star Dave Chappelle (Half-Baked). By far his most profitable collaboration, however, has been with another SNL alumnus, Adam Sandler. Simonds has produced nearly all of Sandler's films, from the box-office dud Airheads through his latest, The Waterboy.

The secret to his movies' appeal, Simonds explains, is that their scripts are developed only after the stars have been signed. "We build the machines around them and customize the machines to their sensibilities," he says. "The goal is for the movie to have a purity of sensibility that will make it idiosyncratic and fresh." (If that sounds abstruse for movies that are heavy on pratfalls, it might help to know that the Selznick of scatology holds a philosophy degree from Yale.)

Fresh or not, the Simonds formula doesn't always work, and his record on non-Sandler films has been spotty. Neither Dirty Work nor Half-Baked took off, although Simonds maintains that Half-Baked eked out a profit and that both films will help establish their stars, just as Sandler's early work paved the way for The Wedding Singer. As for a pair of critically maligned family films, Leave It to Beaver and That Darn Cat, Simonds offers simply, "I learned a lot from those movies."

On the strength of Simonds' hits, however, studios are eager to do business with him. In addition to the agreement with Universal, he signed an exclusive deal in September to produce shows for Disney's Touchstone Television. Simonds is also working on movie projects for Drew Carey, David Spade, and Martin Lawrence--all of which will, of course, be budgeted tightly enough to squeeze out a profit. "I make the movies because they're fun," Simonds says. "My big fear is that someone's going to take my toy away. And if my films continue to make money, I know they're not going to."

--Tim Carvell