film

The Enduring Appeal of Adam Sandler

Nearly 3 in 4 adults say they are fans of the actor

Getty Images / Morning Consult illustration by Samantha Elbouez
December 10, 2019 at 3:54 pm ET

Critics don’t love Adam Sandler, but Americans sure do.

While the comedian has credits on more than 50 “rotten” films on Rotten Tomatoes — including a zero percent rating for 2015’s “The Ridiculous 6” — Sandler has brought in more than $3 billion at the domestic box office, per Comscore. His most recent Netflix film, “Murder Mystery,” was reportedly watched by 73 million households from its release in June through September 2019. And as he generates Oscar buzz for his latest role as Howard Ratner in the Safdie brothers’ “Uncut Gems,” Morning Consult polling shows that 74 percent of the public described themselves as fans of the “Saturday Night Live” alum. So: What’s behind the enduring appeal of Adam Sandler?

Much of his popularity may be a result of his early work: A Nov. 22-24 survey of 2,200 adults found that 52 percent of the 1,632 self-described Sandler fans said they first encountered him through his early films, including “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore,” while 26 percent said their first introduction to Sandler was as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” Even 67 percent of those ages 18 to 29 — some of whom weren’t even born when “Happy Gilmore” was released — said the early Sandler films were their first experience with the actor.   

Sandler was not available to comment for this piece.   

According to Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore Inc., part of Sandler’s appeal is that he has “never abandoned his core audience,” continuing to make films “for the fans, not for the critics” nearly a quarter-century after his first major starring role in 1995’s “Billy Madison.” 

“When you watch Adam Sandler comedy, you know you’re going to have a good time,” Dergarabedian said. 

Survey respondents who described themselves as fans were presented with a list of Sandler’s films and asked their opinion of each movie, with the samples split roughly in half. “The Waterboy” and “Happy Gilmore” had the highest net favorability — the share with a favorable view minus those with an unfavorable view — at 75 percentage points each. Fans were not as familiar with some of Sandler’s more critically acclaimed work, including “Punch-Drunk Love” and “The Meyerowitz Stories,” which most fans said they had not seen. 

The sample of Sandler fans had a 2-point margin of error, and the margin of error for the split samples was 3 points.

As Sandler gets ready to bring the drama yet again in “Uncut Gems,” set to premiere Friday, Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said he isn’t surprised that Sandler’s more serious films haven’t made much of an impact with his fans.   

Thompson noted that those films don’t necessarily feel like “an Adam Sandler movie,” especially to fans who came to know him through his more comedic efforts, which 56 percent of fans said they preferred. 

“Sandler is his own IP. And his IP is comedy, not drama,” said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations Co., noting that while Sandler’s dramatic turns have been well-received, “audiences typically want their Sandler fortified with humor.”

Seventy-one percent of fans cited the humor of his films as a major reason they liked the comedian. Thirty-eight percent said they were fans because they found Sandler relatable, while 41 percent said they liked him because they know what they could expect from a Sandler film.

Thompson said that the majority of Sandler’s filmography serves as a sort of “comfort food” for fans, adding that the films are “really easy to watch” and that the simplicity of them is where the fun comes from. 

“It was tasty. It was easy. It went down smooth,” he said. “Nobody ever gave a chef’s award to a Chicken McNugget, but we still love them in the tens of millions of people.”

Data from Comscore shows that a number of Sandler’s films have had strong multiples at the box office: “The Waterboy” brought in more than $39 million domestically during its opening weekend in 1998, and eventually went on to earn more than $161 million at the domestic box office, while 1999’s “Big Daddy” earned more than $41 million in its opening weekend and netted a cumulative total of more than $163 million. 

But in recent years, some of Sandler’s most successful film projects have not been in movie theaters, but on streaming services: He signed a four-film deal with Netflix Inc. in 2014 before signing another in 2017, according to Business Insider. More than 30 million accounts streamed his most recent Netflix film, “Murder Mystery,” in its first three days on the service, which the company said in a tweet was the biggest opening for a Netflix film. And in a recent New York Times profile, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said that “Adam’s work travels beautifully” and performs well throughout the world. 

While critics took a dim view of much of Sandler’s portfolio, his star turn in “Uncut Gems” looks like it may bring elite acclaim his way. Sandler was just awarded Best Actor by the National Board of Review for that performance. And various pundits are predicting that his name will be among those read when Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 13. 

Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of Sandler fans surveyed said that latter distinction is overdue, and that he should have won an Oscar by this point in his career. They’re not paying much attention to the buzz, though: Just 14 percent had heard “ a lot” or “some” about his chances of being nominated.

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