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Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?

Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?
Tim Gabor

"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. They weren't taking their audience seriously." —April Prosser

Once, she'd been worth a fortune — at least $100 million, according to her friends, who sat at home and rewatched tapes of her at her prime. Every woman had wanted to be her: Julia, Meg, Sandra, Reese. Not anymore.

The romantic comedy is dead.

Director Paul Feig with Kristen Wiig on the set of Bridesmaids: "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.'"
Suzanne Hanover, Universal Studios
Director Paul Feig with Kristen Wiig on the set of Bridesmaids: "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.'"
"Knocked Up was the last great romantic comedy, and that was seven years ago," says Evan Mirzai, co-author of Doppelgangers, an unproduced rom-com script on the Black List.
"Knocked Up was the last great romantic comedy, and that was seven years ago," says Evan Mirzai, co-author of Doppelgangers, an unproduced rom-com script on the Black List.

In 1997, there were two romantic comedies among the top twenty box-office performers. In 1998 and 1999, there were three. Each cracked $100 million in sales. Even as recently as 2005, five romantic comedies topped $100 million at the box office.

Contrast that with 2013: There's not one romantic comedy in the top 50 films. Not even in the top 100.

Men and women are still falling in love, of course. They're just not doing it onscreen — and if they do, it's no laughing matter. In today's comedies, they're either casually hooking up or already married. These are comedies of exasperation, not infatuation.

It's not only that audiences are refusing to see romantic comedies. It's that romantic comedies aren't getting made, at least not by the major studios.The Big Wedding, 2013's sole boy-meets-girl-meets-matrimony comedy, was unceremoniously dumped into theaters by big indie Lionsgate and limped to No. 101 on the chart.

What happened?

As in an Agatha Christie novel, there are many suspects. Some observers blame men who think they'll lose testosterone if they buy tickets to any movie with a whiff of chick flick about it. Still others argue that as a culture we've simply stopped believing in love.

But when we set out sleuthing for the smoking gun, the plot thickened: Those usual suspects have airtight alibis. As with any good murder mystery, the truth is both more complicated than you might have assumed — and a whole lot simpler.

SUSPECT NO. 1: MEN
Men don't like romantic comedies — or if they do, they can't admit it. A marketing executive at a major studio says that, in development meetings, there's a tacit agreement that a male "no" carries more weight than a female "yes." Why should studios risk selling guys on a romantic comedy when they can rely on guys selling their girlfriends on Transformers?

As the current wisdom goes: Men are stubborn, women are flexible. "It's the 'Will you hold my purse' theory," explains Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids and The Heat. "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."

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.

"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 ten 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' 2000 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.

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