Who would have expected a sequel to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle? The film, about a couple of New Jersey stoners desperately seeking sliders, grossed only $18.2 million in 2004 less than Transformers made in a single day. And yet the follow-up, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, arrives in theaters on April 25 with all the buzz of a mainstream studio comedy. How'd that happen? Home video, man. ''Pot movies don't do terribly well in theaters, and yet on video they're wildly out of proportion to the theatrical gross,'' says Jay Chandrasekhar, director of the weed-centered Super Troopers. His 2002 film made $18.5 million in theaters and almost $80 million on DVD and pay TV. ''Our theory,'' he says, ''is that our audience is too stoned to leave the house.'' White Castle offers further proof. The film, which cost only $9 million to make, became a cult hit for the couch-bound. It has grossed more than $60 million in DVD rentals and sales. In short, says White Castle co-writer Jon Hurwitz, ''it's like printing money.''
Pot-centric comedies have become a major cash crop for Hollywood. Between sleeper hits and blockbusters, the genre has generated more than $400 million in domestic box office in the last 10 years, and even more on DVD following a pattern typical for other genres, like horror flicks and family fare. Stoner roles have launched or resurrected the careers of Oscar winners (Sean Penn, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), movie stars (Matthew McConaughey, Dazed and Confused), and former child actors (Neil Patrick Harris, White Castle). And for better or worse, toking up on screen even seems to have lost some of its shock value. ''The 40 Year-Old Virgin was like testing the waters to see if people would freak out that characters are nonchalantly passing joints,'' says Seth Rogen. ''And no one did. The shot where Steve Carell smokes out of an apple pipe the audience exploded in applause.''
Of course, that's one of the film's stars talking but he's got a point. Stoner movies have pushed further into the mainstream than ever before, and deciding whether or not to stop lighting up and start growing up has become a dilemma for more than one arrested adolescent on screen. Guantanamo will be followed in August by Pineapple Express, a bud-smoking action comedy, starring and co-written by Rogen, that is already being hailed as one of the greatest stoner movies ever, as well as a hilarious romp for audiences in any condition. Then there's a documentary, Super High Me, with comedian Doug Benson, an indie drama, Humboldt County, and a Sundance darling, The Wackness, starring Ben Kingsley. Factor in the popularity of Showtime's Weeds, and it's pretty clear we're witnessing a bong boom. Just don't call it that in Hollywood.
Despite the success of stoner movies, the major studios would rather avoid that label. Neither New Line (Guantanamo) nor Sony (Pineapple) would comment for this story. Presumably, that's partly because they're worried about being accused of promoting drug use to kids: Many parents are less comfortable with the depiction of drug use than they are with onscreen violence, and while most pot movies are R-rated, underage kids certainly sneak in. But Hollywood's ambivalence about the stoner movies label may have more to do with trying to maximize their profit. ''We're not releasing a niche picture; it's a big, broad comedy,'' insists one studio insider. ''There's more to it than a 'stoner' movie.'' Oookayy. But they might just want to chill. The market for stoner fare has never been better. ''They always say that Hollywood is the most rebellious when there are Republicans in control,'' Chandrasekhar offers. ''But honestly, when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama admit to having smoked, there's nothing to rebel against. I almost think there's not the same fun in pot movies now. [In 1978] you saw Cheech and Chong smoking a joint and you were like, 'Holy s---!'''
NEXT PAGE: Seth Rogen on Pineapple Express. ''A $40 million [budget] would've been nice,'' he says. ''But because it's a weed movie, you get $25 million.''