“Can the Romantic Comedy be saved?”

January 4th, 2013 by

That provocative question is the title of a Vulture article from last week. Here is the frame:

It was not that long ago when romantic comedies were a reliable date-night staple at the box office. It was a carefree, frothy time, when Julia, J. Lo, Kate, Katherine, Sandra, and Reese could show up onscreen, meet cute with just about any handsome male specimen, and pull in seven figures. But audiences seem to be falling out of love with the genre: The near-total rejection of Gerard Butler’s Playing for Keeps ($12 million, and fading fast) is only the latest casualty.

Earlier this year, Wanderlust ($17 million) and The Five-Year Engagement ($28 million) fizzled, while the genre’s once-reigning doyenne, Reese Witherspoon, saw her hybrid action/rom-com, This Means War, met with yawning indifference: It grossed just $54 million domestically, ten million less than its explosion-heavy budget. The highest-grossing rom-com of the year was Kevin Hart’s Think Like a Man ($91 million), and that film never truly broke out beyond its predominantly African-American target audience. “It is the hardest time of my 30 years in the business of doing them,” said Lynda Obst, the producer of romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle, One Fine Day, and How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days.

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The downward slope of the rom-com’s fortunes has been steep. Just a decade ago, theaters were packed with date-night fare that took in hundreds of millions of dollars: In 2002, the top five highest-grossing romantic comedies alone — My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Sweet Home Alabama, Maid in Manhattan, and Two Weeks Notice — collectively took in a whopping $555 million in domestic box office. There were seven rom-coms in the top 100 films of that year, and this septet averaged a $96 million take. In 2008, there were eleven rom-coms in the top 100, with an average domestic gross of $77 million. By 2010, there were fourteen rom-coms in the top 100 highest grossing films — but their average domestic gross had dropped to $53 million. This year the average gross in the top 100 is up a hair to $54 million, but that’s based on only four movies that have cracked that list. (Many more did not.)

Reasons listed in the article for the supposed decline of the rom-com:

* “There are many execs who believe that audiences are rejecting these light romances because they are increasingly unrelatable given how dating and courtship have morphed in the 2010s.”

* “Some in Hollywood use demographics to divine the reasons that audiences have lost interest in the genre.”

* “A large amount of blame for the decline rests… with Hollywood’s studios and their ever-greater emphasis on blockbuster franchises.”

* “The rom-com genre has been damaged by studios’ desire to make every film appeal to everyone.”

* “Viewers know that they can get more enjoyment and reflected romance from watching one of these films at home snuggled up on a couch than they can shelling out big bucks to go to a crowded theater.”

* “Rom-coms used to be powered by dependable stars, but these big actors and actresses aren’t the sure thing they used to be.”

* “With the familiar formulas no longer working, studios have come to believe that the category “rom-com” has become a stigma, and so they have been melding it with other genres.”

But this last point opens up a whole other area worth discussing:

A third studio chief agrees, noting that the biggest romantic comedy to come along in years was actually released this year — we just didn’t realize it at the time: Ted, the raunchy Seth MacFarlane CGI comedy that grossed a massive half billion dollars worldwide, almost half of it here in the States. “On some level, Ted was a romantic comedy about a couple who fall in love,” says this third studio chief, “They just happened to be a man and his teddy bear.  But there was no question that their romance was true love.”

That reminded me of a New Yorker article from a few years back by Richard Brody in which he suggested:

I saw Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” again on Saturday and this time, despite the title, saw it less as a portrait of the remarkable character—unusual but exemplary—played by Ben Stiller than as a romantic comedy. It reminded me that the rules of romantic comedy have changed—that the high-concept variety of the genre is more or less dead. The best romantic comedies of recent years are distinguished by their lack of a mainspring; they are, in effect, stories of people tossed together by circumstances who try to cope together. They’re linear films, which build more on character than on situation, and which, theoretically, could run indefinitely long.

Is the very fabric of funny romantic movies changing? Have the ‘rules’ really changed? Is there a genre-creep at work here? What do you think is going on? And when was the last time you saw a rom-com you really loved?

As screenwriters, especially those who traffic in this story territory, these are critical concerns. I believe if you write a fantastic romantic comedy, somebody will buy it, no matter the vagaries of the marketplace. However if buyers are consciously avoiding this particular sub-genre or at the very least cutting back on it, this is important information to know.

That said, I have to believe the major studios and even mini-majors will always be on the look-out for romance and romantic-comedy projects for key holidays like Valentine’s Day or as counterprogramming during the summer to appeal to women and couples.

Still that begs the question: Is there something going on with rom-coms?

For the rest of the Vulture article, go here.

For the rest of the New Yorker article, go here.

UPDATE: As I hoped, rom-com expert Billy Mernit whose excellent screenwriting blog “Living the Romantic Comedy” is a must-bookmark site, weighed in on the same Vulture article with this post. Give it a read… and feel much better, rom-com fans! BTW Billy tagged Moonrise Kingdom as 2012′s #1 rom-com. Nice to hear as it was my favorite movie of last year.

7 thoughts on ““Can the Romantic Comedy be saved?”

  1. I’m not sure whether to release a shrill panicked scream or shrug out a “meh.”

    See, the great thing about Rom-Coms (that I haven’t seen lately), are that they can be more than a sub-genre of comedy. If done properly, they can be a sub-genre of SciFi, Drama, Action, Adventure, Westerns and yes, (“Warm Bodies”) Horror.

    IMHO, the failures of 2012′s RomComs can be attributed to the lack of creative scope listed above, and this… KNOW (and write for) YOUR AUDIENCE. RomComs are tricky, the funny, the sigh and the meaningful impact have to be juggled just right to allow the audience to feel engaged/fulfilled.

    Hollywood seems to thrive on it’s genre cycles. Hopefully, a slew of creative, clever, high-concept RomComs will come out that make this article’s question moot.

    In short, I have hope. Instead of the scream or shrug, I’ll trust the old mantra, “Write a great script and Hollywood will find you.”

  2. Shaula Evans says:

    I want to take time to read the full articles and think about them, but my quick response is to agree with Traci (who I know knows a lot about Rom-Coms).

    If The Apartment were a brand new film today, it would be a hit.

    Now could you sell it as a spec today, get it funded, and successfully make the movie? That’s another question.

    I find it hard to imagine that there won’t always be room for good rom-coms. And we can certainly aim to write them.

  3. Still comes down to a great script I suppose. I thought “Crazy Stupid Love” was great.

  4. [...] “Can the Romantic Comedy be saved?” [...]

  5. churnage says:

    Isn’t this one of those year-end fill-in-the-blank analysis articles that the trades always do? One year it’s action movies that are dead or dying. The next year it’s animated films. This year, it’s romantic comedies.

    Maybe the real problem isn’t the genre per se, but the specific movies that come out in that genre for a particular year.

    Make good movies and people will go see them.

    Make mediocre movies and people will stay home.

  6. elle says:

    The Rom Com problem is pretty simple, and can be summed up in one word: laziness.

    As the genre became more reliable as a moneymaker, the effort going into the scripts and production became negligible.

    Characters, settings, and conflicts are boilerplate (how many ladies’ magazine writers have we seen?), plots forced and convoluted (HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN TEN DAYS takes the cake). More than a few of these films focus on how romance and domesticity should trump work-related goals and that ambition and high-powered jobs are unattractive, which is outdated thinking that’s a huge turn off to most women these days.

    You continue to see bidding wars on expletive-titled scripts that are two-dimensional, derivative, and barely coherent. Why are producers buying this shit? At the end of the day, if we already know Gerard Butler has made three terrible Rom Coms, why on earth would anyone sit through another, no matter who else is in the cast?

    Both of J.Lo’s big Rom Coms, MAID IN MANHATTAN (storied by the master of this kind of film, John Hughes) and THE WEDDING PLANNER, are simple, sweet, character-driven fluff pieces that feature active, single women protagonists striving to better their own lives who happen to fall into relationships along the way. This is the fantasy women like, this is what sells at the box office, and what the genre needs to return to to keep making the big bucks…

  7. Billy Mernit says:

    While the Vulture article makes some good points and acknowledges some industry realities, there’s a fundamental misperception involved. By “romantic comedy,” Brodesser-Akner is referring to a specific kind of formulaic rom-com (e.g. Career Girl Lands Alpha Guy) that peaked by the turn of the century. While it’s true that this trite, studio-manufactured “stick two stars in it and see what happens” brain-dead programmer has lost a chunk of the mainstream audience, Romantic Comedies, when they’re done right – i.e. with some originality – are still having an impact and performing well.

    Brodesser-Akner doesn’t even mention “Silver Linings Playbook,” for example, which peppered critical 10 Best Lists this past year and is on track for multiple Oscar nominations (its box office remains to be seen, since Weinstein isn’t opening it wide until after the Oscar noms are announced).

    I did a post in response to the Vulture piece in my rom-com 2012 round-up: http://livingromcom.typepad.com/my_weblog/2012/12/the-8th-annual-asta-awards.html

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