If studios shelved their weakest blockbuster, they could fund five to ten additional midprice 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 midbudget 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.

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.

So when Warner Bros. makes a midprice 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.

"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 midlevel wins — it's gotta be all or nothing. In reaching for riches, it must embrace the world.

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.

If Sandler and Barrymore's Blended also does well in May, expect to see industry pundits clutching their Ouija boards and proclaiming that the romantic comedy has been resurrected. But for now, its murderer is still on the loose — and it will kill again. 

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