Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?

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

So when Warner Bros. makes a mid-price movie — say, the $35 million original The Hangover — it spends as much as the film's budget to turn it into a hit. That The Hangover earned $277.3 million in the United States alone proves the studio made a smart bet. (Until, as ever, it allowed each sequel to bloat in budget until the third cost nearly triple the original's price tag yet grossed only $112.2 million domestically.)

In light of all that effort, it's no wonder studios believe a $100 million hit just isn't enough. Only one romantic comedy has broken $200 million at the domestic box office. Tellingly, the Weinsteins were willing to spend money on Silver Linings Playbook primarily because of its tie-in Oscar campaign.

Studios, Barrymore says, increasingly see films as satisfying one of two needs: "Is it meaningful and will it win awards, or is it a box office juggernaut?" Pity the genres that don't neatly fit into either box.

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.

"Comedies, especially romantic comedies, just really aren't in that discussion because they're usually not going to win the awards, unfortunately," she adds. "That's the math of why we are where we are."

The industry no longer has the energy for mid-level wins — it's gotta be all or nothing. In reaching for riches, it must embrace the world.

Suspect No. 7: The Foreign Box Office

In 2001, the international box office was 51 percent of total movie sales. Ten years later, it was 69 percent, and it continues to climb. The common wisdom is that international audiences shun romantic comedies — they're too wordy and culturally specific. If you want to sell abroad, make a cartoon or an action spectacular.

In truth, foreign audiences like romantic comedies. Way back in 1990 — the prehistoric era of global promotions — Pretty Woman made 61.5 percent of its money abroad (again, without a known female star). Until 2012, the No. 1 importer of Hollywood films was Japan, an even more female-heavy box office than our own. Growing markets such as Russia have made local hits of lesser romantic comedies, like Gerald Butler's Playing the Field and Ashton Kutcher's Spread, which was never even released domestically.

"That's the kind of film we're looking for, anyway," says Lisa Shectman, director of acquisitions for Volgafilm, a major Russian importer. "Russia's sort of becoming like Japan, in that a lot of females are going to the movies."

However, the growing giant is China, which last year edged out Japan as Hollywood's No. 1 partner. The reason for its increasing clout? In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden and MPAA head Chris Dodd convinced China to expand that nation's quota of Hollywood imports from 21 to 35. But there's a catch: China insists the extra films must be IMAX or 3-D. Not so good for love stories.

Still, even now, China imports only a quarter of studio releases. The vast majority of Hollywood films have zero need to please Chinese tastes: Three-quarters of them can't hustle for yuan. So while China appears to be a culprit, it's just an accomplice. What killed the American comedy is closer to home.

And Then There Were None

The truth is, like the murder victim in Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, the romantic comedy was slain by several assassins. While the growth of franchises and marketing budgets loaded the gun, it was expensive, slapped-together films like How Do You Know that underestimated the adult female audience and pulled the trigger.

But the bigger problem is that studios misread every clue that could have saved their damsels in distress: Instead of hunting for smart, modern scripts, they doubled down on wooing teenage boys. Instead of finding the next Kristen Wiig blockbuster, they punished Katherine Heigl. No one cross-examined the conventional wisdom, so Hollywood became convinced that romantic comedies can't sell.

The fact is, we've been here before. From the 1960s through the late '70s, the romantic comedy was dead — in that era, a victim of the sexual revolution (which made all plot lines seem obsolete) and male auteurs too serious for light-hearted romance (until happy surprises such as Annie Hall convinced them otherwise).

You can see the ripple effect even through the mid-'80s, where, as is true today, most "romantic" comedies were really male-driven sex farces that ended with the nerd getting the girl. Even after Splash and Romancing the Stone proved the clout of a good rom-com, it took years for Hollywood to trust the messenger. When Harry Met Sally... and Pretty Woman were actually brave risks: studio-funded films with unknown leads, which also happened to be the only major romantic comedies released those years.

Bold changes come from vacuums. We're seeing it happen now. If the major studios won't make romantic comedies, independent companies will. Ultra-low-budget indies like this year's The Right Kind of Wrong, Better Living Through Chemistry and Somebody Marry Barry are inverting the How Do You Know model and figuring out a new way to make the genre profitable.

Only one studio offshoot seems to have figured out how to make it work: the Sony affiliate Screen Gems. In 2012, it released the $12 million romantic comedy Think Like a Man, a film that corrected the mistakes of the past and capitalized on what works now: It was low-budget, credibly honest, traditionally upbeat enough to please women yet macho enough to attract guys. Its audience was 55 percent female, 45 percent male, yet it earned an A-plus among young men, according to CinemaScore exit surveys. Think Like a Man made $96 million despite its lower-profile, affordable cast, and it even managed to turn pint-sized stand-up comedian Kevin Hart into a viable movie star.

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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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