Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?

Rom-coms used to be a cash cow and wildly popular with audiences. What happened?

As the current wisdom goes: Men are stubborn, women are flexible. "It's the 'Will you hold my purse' theory," Feig explains. "A guy's in a store with his wife or girlfriend and she asks him to hold her purse, it's, like, Kryptonite or something. They have to hold it so that no one around them thinks it's theirs. But if a guy says to his wife or girlfriend, 'Can you hold my backpack?' she's like, 'Sure.' She doesn't give a shit. I think Hollywood banks on that."

Hollywood didn't always. In fact, Walt Disney trumpeted the opposite. "Women are the best judges of anything we turn out. Their taste is very important," he wrote in 1959. "They are the theatergoers, they are the ones who drag the men in. If the women like it, to heck with the men." That's all changed.

Except it hasn't. Women continue to buy 51 percent of all movie tickets, a figure that becomes even more impressive when you calculate post-Walt Hollywood's wan efforts to lure them into theaters.

Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson in How Do You Know (2010), a pricey, star-filled flop.
David James, 2010 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.
Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson in How Do You Know (2010), a pricey, star-filled flop.
Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler play divorced parents in Blended, to be released in May.
Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler play divorced parents in Blended, to be released in May.

"Certainly not 51 percent of movies are centered on women," says writer-director-producer Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated, Something's Gotta Give). In fact, in 2011, only one in 10 films starred a female protagonist. Not even Katniss Everdeen driving The Hunger Games franchise seems likely to balance the odds in females' favor.

"But you know what they say: 'Women will go to movies about men, yet men may not go to movies about women,'" Meyers adds. "So as long as that theory prevails, I suppose no one feels the need to change the status quo."

But studios should. Forget squishy ideals of feminism and fair play. Studios should make female-driven films for a mercenary reason: They're leaving cash on the table.

Think of the lessons in Meyers' 2001 flick What Women Want, which grossed more than $374 million worldwide. First, that a film obsessed with understanding the female brain can become the second-highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time. As for the second, the plot couldn't make it any clearer. Mel Gibson plays a marketer who specializes in testosterone-slick ads starring cool dudes and chicks in bikinis. Selling to men has made his company good money, but his boss, Alan Alda, suspects it could make even more. So instead of promoting Gibson, Alda hires Helen Hunt, who lectures the boardroom about the peril of ignoring the female dollar.

"When Sears decided to go after women in their advertising and said, 'Come see the softer side of Sears,' their revenues went up 30 percent," Hunt tells them. "We can't afford not to have a piece of a $40 billion pie."

Why does Hollywood think it can afford the loss? The only explanation is industry-wide amnesia. When a female-driven film does well — think Bridesmaids — it's greeted as an unexpected success. But it should be no surprise that the predominantly female theatrical audience bought tickets to a great, female-centered comedy.

And while the suits swore they'd learn from its example, the projected Bridesmaids bounce in female-driven comedies hasn't happened. In the three years since its release, only one other major female comedy has been released: last year's Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy flick The Heat ... also directed by Paul Feig. It, too, was a hit.

Hollywood execs applaud Feig's successful formula, but they don't get the message. Instead of greenlighting more female comedies, they've begged Feig to make a movie about men.

"I've been lectured so many times by producers and people in power, 'You don't want to get pigeonholed in the whole woman thing,'" Feig says with a chuckle. "Do I want to get pigeonholed in the men thing? I want to get pigeonholed in the people thing!"

Suspect No. 3: Bad Scripts

Of course, Bridesmaids wasn't a classic romantic comedy — though it was called one by critics who knew no other term for a funny film starring women. After all, in Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo's script, the focus wasn't on Wiig's character finding a good man; it was about her reconfiguring her friendship with Maya Rudolph. The love story between Wiig and the Irish cop played by Chris O'Dowd was secondary, and even then Feig was iffy about including it.

"I had a lot of angst about that," Feig admits. "Even having to have a love story was kind of, 'Oh, shoot, it'd be kind of nice to do one that's not all about that.'"

Maybe romantic-comedy conventions just got tired. From the late '90s to the mid-2000s, Hollywood produced dozens of romantic comedies each year, but many were outright lousy. In fact, you could argue that romantic comedies did so well for so long that they were taken for granted — hence the stretch of depressingly lobotomized movies about materialistic career women who learn that a man is more important than their Manolos. (See: Sweet Home Alabama, Sex and the City, Confessions of a Shopaholic, The Ugly Truth.) Perhaps studio executives looked at the diminishing returns on their diminishing-quality films and decided to scrap the whole genre.

"I do think, for a few years, an awful lot of rom-coms were made to feed a certain segment of the audience. I'm not sure anyone making them had huge ambitions," Meyers says. "But honestly, can't that be said of a lot of genres, and I don't see those disappearing." After all, the concurrent flops The Green Hornet and The Green Lantern didn't persuade any studios to stop making superhero movies.

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Great article! I'm growing tired of all the "dick flicks" and crave a good rom-com. I absolutely loved It's Complicated and Something's Got To Give. Apparently the only folks falling in love are over the age of 50 and black people. I loved Why Did I Get Married by the way.


Great article.  A minor FYI-- "romantic" is spelled wrong in the link; when I posted the article on FB, it showed up mispelled.


What would you call the Best Man Holiday? Chick - Flick. #50


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