"I'm gonna really embarrass myself here," Howard Stern cautioned his satellite radio listeners. "But I watched 'Pitch Perfect,' and I liked it."
That 2012 comedy about a female a cappella group beloved by teenage girls? It was the shock jock's guilty pleasure.
Universal Pictures executives giddily passed around audio from Stern's show, taken aback by the film's unlikely fan. But his surprising confession was just one of many unlikely developments that led to the studio greenlighting a highly anticipated sequel to what was only a modest box office success. It's the kind of story that happens rarely in Hollywood these days — the true word-of-mouth hit.
The scope of the phenomenon is likely to be felt as soon as "Pitch Perfect 2" opens May 15. In its opening weekend, the film could make more than half what the first movie did during its entire run.
The young females came first; opening weekend, the audience was 81% female, with 55% under age 25. They drove the majority of the ticket sales for the film during its domestic run, where it grossed $65 million — a healthy sum for a $17-million production, certainly, but not blockbuster money. The demographic fully embraced the picture's girl power-centric storyline and the soundtrack's creative spin on Top 40 hits.
High-schoolers began hosting sing-along slumber parties. Kids were driving their parents batty trying to master "Cups," the film's most popular song, with a rhythmic portion that requires hand-clapping and a paper cup.
In case you weren't one of those fangirls, a quick primer: "Pitch Perfect" follows the Barden Bellas, an a cappella group whose members bond as they try to pull their act together for a national singing competition. There's the artsy girl who works at the school's radio station and remixes the group's songs (Anna Kendrick). The plump goofball who insists her group mates call her "Fat Amy" even though her name is Patricia (Rebel Wilson). The neurotic overachiever so obsessed with a cappella that she uses "aca" as an all-purpose prefix, as in, "Aca-awesome!" (Brittany Snow). They're a ragtag group of underdogs, but together they make it work.
The film was based on a book by GQ editor Mickey Rapkin, in which he gave a behind-the-scenes look at collegiate a cappella groups from schools such as Tufts University and the University of Virginia.
But it wasn't until the film's afterlife that things really got crazy.
When "Pitch Perfect" was released on home video around Christmas 2012, it started to become clear that the movie had connected with more than just teen girls. Copies were flying off the shelves at brick-and-mortar outlets, which is when Kay Cannon, the film's screenwriter, said she realized, "We had really hit."
"I went shopping for the holidays at Target, and they had several racks of the DVD to choose from," she recalled. "But they were all sold out."
And when HBO began offering "Pitch Perfect" to subscribers the next June, the movie attracted nearly 26 million viewers, making it the network's top performer in 2013 above such box office behemoths as "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Ted."
It started to feel like the movie was everywhere, even though it wasn't actually anywhere. People started using catchphrases like "Aca-scuse me?" in casual conversation. On her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer had a skit about a guy who didn't want his girlfriend to know he'd secretly memorized the "Cups" routine.
Even the Green Bay Packers got into it. David Bakhtiari, one of the team's offensive tackles, sent "Pitch Perfect" co-star Elizabeth Banks a message on Twitter telling her how obsessed he was with the film.
"The athletes responded to it because of the competition element," said Max Handelman, Banks' husband and a producer of both "Pitch Perfect" films. "They knew what it was like to prepare for a big event — and all the squabbling amongst the team that comes with it."
In many ways, "Pitch Perfect" followed the trajectory of such films as "Austin Powers," "The Big Lebowski" and "Anchorman" — comedies that became cultural phenomena long after they exited multiplexes. Of course, with most movies like this — the kind you quote all the time or rewatch with your spouse when you can't settle on anything else — lightning doesn't strike twice. The "Sex and the City" sequel was a critical and commercial bust, and sequels to "Legally Blonde," "Charlie's Angels" and "Anchorman" were duds too.
Still, Universal felt confident that the groundswell behind "Pitch Perfect" was unique. The movie's soundtrack — featuring a cappella versions of songs by Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson and Rihanna — was the top seller of 2013, going on to sell nearly 2 million albums worldwide.
"The music really eventized the movie in a way that comedy is leaning toward right now," said Banks, who would go on to direct the sequel. "A director like Paul Feig can eventize a movie by having a big comedic star like Melissa McCarthy in it, or you can have a big, exciting hook. It just turned out that the musical numbers were ours."
To capitalize on the musical momentum, record company execs asked whether Kendrick could make a video for her song "Cups" — a song so popular it spent 50 weeks on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. Meanwhile, Wilson — an Australian actress who had previously had only a cameo in "Bridesmaids" — was becoming a breakout star and was asked to host the 2013 MTV Movie Awards.
"You could see we had something as a company," said Pete Levinsohn, Universal's president and chief distribution officer. "It felt like we could go after a sequel based on potential instead of box office."
Levinsohn told his colleagues that "Pitch Perfect" had performed 192% above regression — a studio predictive tool that factors in historical data, genre and box office to project how many units a film should sell.
"That really impressed me, but the first movie was made for such an affordable price that taking a swing on a sequel wasn't such a giant proposition," said Peter Cramer, the studio's co-president of production. "Yes, the numbers supported it, but it seemed like an obvious proposition."
So in September 2013, Cannon began work on a script. Kendrick and Wilson agreed to return.
"The reason all of us signed on for the second one was because the fans wanted it," said Wilson, 29. "They were so nice and generous on social media. The movie has a good message and a lot of girl power. When I look at it, I go, 'Oh, that's a movie I'd go and watch if I wasn't in it.' It's like 'Bring It On' with a cappella singing."
The studio had hoped that director Jason Moore would return to helm the second film but learned in December that he was already booked on another project. So after studio Chairman Donna Langley saw a short film Banks had directed for the American Heart Assn., she offered the actress the gig.
"Speaking as a producer and not as her husband, after it was clear Jason wouldn't be able to direct, there was no other idea beyond Elizabeth," said Handelman. "The tone of 'Pitch Perfect' is so specific, and from the studio's perspective, they wanted someone who could step right in and seamlessly understand the movie comedically and musically."
Bigger and better
In the sequel, the Bellas are still in college — but they've moved into a sorority-style house together. After Fat Amy accidentally exposes her nether regions to an audience that includes President Obama, the group again faces an uphill battle to be taken seriously.
There were certain elements from the first movie that the filmmakers knew they needed to hang onto in "Pitch Perfect 2."
"I would often cite 'Sex and the City,'" said Cannon. "When they made the jump from TV to film, you needed to be reassured that you'd have the girls, the handbags, the city — the things you loved about the show."
One of the most popular scenes from the original was the riff-off — an a cappella battle between the Bellas and other singing groups. So Cannon decided to give the idea another spin — this time inserting the Packers, including star linebacker Clay Matthews — into the competition.
"David Bakhtiari said they were such crazy fans that they'd do anything to be involved," said Banks. "So I was like, 'If they'll do anything, they'll sing and dance.'"
The director also wanted to make sure the Bellas came across as underdogs. At the end of "Pitch Perfect," the group is triumphant, having won a huge national showdown. "We had to have them start at that level — we couldn't just suddenly take away all of their skills," Banks said. Hence the Fat Amy fiasco at the top of the film, and a new arch nemesis for the Bellas to take on — the menacing German a cappella group Das Sound Machine.
Other things, though, had to be bigger and better. The Bellas couldn't just compete for a national title — they had to head for the world's, which would also give the film an international tie-in. New girls were added to the group, including "True Grit" Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld. Pop star Jessie J was drafted to write the sequel's new original song, "Flashlight," which Universal is hoping will become the next "Cups." And the film's budget was upped to $29 million.
The plan seems to be working. According to those who have seen pre-release audience surveys, "Pitch Perfect 2" will likely debut with more than $40 million — even as it faces off against the buzzed-about action reboot "Mad Max: Fury Road." And Wilson said she recently agreed to star in a third film — even though the studio denies that another installment has been given the go-ahead.
"I think it's cool that it's turned into a franchise," said the actress. "I remember somebody once saying to me, 'If you get an opportunity to do a franchise, do it.' This obviously wasn't envisioned as that, but look what it's become."