Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?

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

Smart writers used to write romantic comedies: Think Nora Ephron, James L. Brooks, Amy Heckerling, Cameron Crowe, John Hughes, even Woody Allen, not to mention the greats such as Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. Today's young writers have different aspirations.

Look at the Black List, which tallies each year's best unproduced scripts. Among the 100-plus screenplays that made the list in 2012 and 2013 were only two romantic comedies. That makes the once-lucrative genre less popular than scripts about Nazis (five) and time travel (four) and as popular as comedies about terminally ill teenagers desperate to lose their virginity (also two).

Maybe young writers are just being realistic. Meyers says, "I doubt most writers are sitting down for six months to a year to write something they know they probably can't sell."

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.

What about those writers whose romantic comedies made the list, current trends be damned? April Prosser, whose screenplay The One That Got Away made the Black List in 2012, initially found some interest.

"When I went out with this script last November, it just opened every door for me," she says. "But every studio exec I was meeting with said, 'We love this script, it's one of our favorite romantic comedies, but we're not making romantic comedies right now. What we are buying is the female buddy comedy.' "

In other words, studios took the wrong lesson from Bridesmaids: Instead of realizing that women want more female-driven films, they figured they want only female-driven buddy films exactly like Bridesmaids. In executives' eyes, the female buddy comedy supplanted the romantic comedy. And then they didn't make any buddy comedies, either.

In her meetings, Prosser found herself having to defend the genre as a whole, even though her own script was an attempt to break away from the mistakes of the recent past. "The pop-syrupy romantic comedies that studios were churning out in the late '90s and early 2000s don't cut it anymore in our culture," she says. "They weren't taking their audience seriously, so it's a comment on how smart you are if you say you like romantic comedy — it's like saying that you have lowbrow tastes."

Prosser finally sold her script, although tellingly, it did not go to a major studio. Instead, Amazon's upstart film production company bought The One That Got Away. With its reams of data tracking, the online behemoth must feel confident a new romantic comedy will find viewers.

Still, getting the film made hasn't been easy.

"If you're actually lucky enough to get your romantic-comedy script sold, then you have to get talent and directors attached," Prosser says. While Amazon hopes to announce a director soon, the process has been slow. Then it faces the challenge of casting.

"People can be so wary, because when something is out of fashion, they're afraid to attach to it," Prosser explains. "There's only a small crop of actors that are considered bankable. This genre is the hardest of all genres to get made without a star."

Suspect No. 4: Stars

In 2007, the industry thought it had found a new romantic-comedy heroine: Knocked Up's Katherine Heigl, a TV actress who, it was hoped, would appeal to women and men. Quickly, Hollywood cast her in everything — with 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth and Killers, Heigl did a romantic comedy every year for three years. They were terrible, and Heigl has since been single-handedly (and only half-jokingly) accused of killing off the genre.

Heigl was hounded out of the big leagues (just this month, she launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $150,000 to finish her current film, a low-budget lesbian romantic comedy co-starring Alexis Bledel). But it was a witch hunt: Heigl's romantic comedies actually earned money.

Just look at the numbers: 27 Dresses cost $30 million and made $160.2 million worldwide; The Ugly Truth cost $38 million and made $205.3 million. Only Killers was a flop, and after three hits in a row, most actors deserve a pass. Not that Heigl got one.

After the scripts got bad, many actors fled the romantic comedy lest they, too, get labeled box office poison. Titans of the genre such as Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey dashed back to dramas, and promising newcomers like Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence followed suit. Who can blame them? All five are currently nominated for Academy Awards.

The stigma against romantic-comedy roles is real. Just look at the patronizing surprise that McConaughey can actually act, as though every time he stripped off his shirt for Kate Hudson, he lost 10 IQ points. Accordingly, once-bankable rom-com stars like Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks haven't touched the genre in years. (Streep's success at straddling both worlds should make them reconsider — though she is, of course, Meryl Streep.)

A massive romantic-comedy smash was once a surefire way for a starlet to become America's sweetheart. Yet today's young ingenues have avoided the genre, choosing instead to play the girlfriend to an inexhaustible supply of men in tights.

An equally big problem is that the kind of star who can open a movie — any movie, not just one based on a comic book or board game — is expensive. That's another reason that romantic comedies, which should be among the cheapest of genre films, are perceived as a risk.

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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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