Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?

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

For Frost's clients, the glossed-over good cheer of romantic comedies can be depressing. She says, "What I hear the most is, 'I was watching this movie and it made me feel so sad about my life,' or 'I was watching this movie and it reminded me how empty my life is.'"

"Life isn't a fairy tale," says actress Drew Barrymore, who starred in several of the genre's sweetest hits, including two with Adam Sandler. "We're in a time right now where a young guy and a young girl are kind of crass with each other. It's not so romantic. They drink and sleep together on the first night and it's, like, 'Whoa! Taboo! How do we deal with that?' I don't know if we know exactly how to work with that kind of genre yet because it's so new. The we-all-have-sex-and-drink-and-talk-dirty-and-swear romantic comedy, that sort of worked for a minute, but it seems to have gone away as quickly as it came."

Recently, Barrymore took a four-year break from the genre. In May, however, she and Sandler return to romantic comedy with Warner Bros.' Blended, ending the major studios' rom-com drought.

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.

Still, by last decade's standards, Blended is unusual: Barrymore and Sandler play divorced parents on a blind date with their children in tow. By betting only on proven stars, the genre has been forced to age up; that, in turn, means fewer films about first weddings and more about middle-aged adults old enough to know that love might not last.

"I think the movies that we've made have been very reflective of where we are in our personal lives," Barrymore says. "The last thing on the agenda with this film was the happy ending. It's much more about the how-to-make-it-work functionality of it all, and can that be joyful. If you can find happiness in your day-to-day life, that's far more valuable than a happy ending, because that's not the way reality works."

She adds, "I wonder if women grow up and they become slightly more disinterested in the romantic comedy because you realize that a happy ending is so fleeting and untrue. Maybe the system is in overdrive, and people aren't just allowed to make a lot of throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks kind of romantic comedies. Maybe it's only going to be the much better ones that make it through."

For now, however, she has embraced the bromance, even though it leaves actresses like her mulling their next movies. "I think maybe we've forgotten how to place men and women together," Barrymore says. "To me, Superbad was actually a romantic comedy between the two guys. I feel like there's better chemistry between men right now than [between] males and females."

Suspect No. 6: Superheroes and Sequels

No love burns brighter than that between a superhero, his super-buddies and the studio that scores with their billion-dollar beer bash — especially when they can go back to the keg for another round. What made money in 2013? Franchises. Eight of the top 10 moneymakers were sequels, or reboots of old series with numbers in their titles: Despicable Me 2, Fast & Furious 6. The ninth was a Disney cartoon; the 10th was Gravity — the sole stand-alone, adult-driven film.

Romantic comedies don't launch franchises. Where do you go after a happy ending? Stasis or divorce. With The Proposal 2: Propose Harder off the table, studios lack the incentive to fund films that are one-and-done. These days, they'd rather spend money repeating a proven hit.

But the obsession with franchises comes with a high — and literal — cost. Blockbusters don't always make money but they definitely spend it. Sequels seem to be the obvious answer when you scan the box office winners, but in terms of return on investment, they're a riskier bet.

Let's crunch the numbers. The biggest rom-com in 2012, Silver Linings Playbook, made just over half the domestic gross of The Amazing Spider-Man. Worldwide, it made a third as much: $236 million versus $752 million. But check the price tags: Silver Linings Playbook cost $21 million, a fraction of Spider-Man's $230 million budget, and made its money back 11 times over. Spider-Man made more cash, but it wasn't as profitable.

If studios shelved their weakest blockbuster, they could fund five to 10 additional mid-price films a year. Even if every one of those didn't hit, enough would make their money back to compensate. Yet between 2007 and 2012, the number of studio releases plummeted 37 percent.

There are two equalizers that explain why studios prefer to release a handful of blockbusters instead of a large, diverse slate of mid-budget flicks: merchandising and marketing. The Amazing Spider-Man made extra cash by lending its brand to everything from Hardee's to OPI nail polish, not to mention an aisle-full of gizmos at Toys R Us. The Avengers made a bonus $500 million in toy sales; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen an extra $592 million. But you won't find an action figure of Bradley Cooper in sweatpants and a trash bag.

Then there are advertising costs. In 2007, the last year for which the Motion Picture Association of America released marketing statistics, studios spent an average of $35 million on advertising for each movie. Even cheap films have to add on a whopping extra tax.

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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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