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.
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.