Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?

Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?
Tim Gabor

Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?

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.

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.

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.

Hollywood execs applaud Feig's successful formula, but they don't get the message. Instead of greenlighting more female comedies, they've begged Feig to make a movie about men.

"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,'" Feig chuckles. "Do I want to get pigeonholed in the men thing? I want to get pigeonholed in the people thing!"

Of course, Bridesmaids wasn't a classic romantic comedy — though it was called one by critics who knew no other term for a funny film starring women. After all, in Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo's script, the focus wasn't on Wiig's character finding a good man; it was about her reconfiguring her friendship with Maya Rudolph. The love story between Wiig and the Irish cop played by Chris O'Dowd was secondary, and even then Feig was iffy about including it.

"I had a lot of angst about that," Feig admits. "Even having to have a love story was kind of, 'Oh, shoot, it'd be kind of nice to do one that's not all about that.' "

Maybe romantic-comedy conventions just got tired. From the late '90s to the mid-2000s, Hollywood produced dozens of romantic comedies each year, but many were outright lousy. In fact, you could argue that romantic comedies did so well for so long that they were taken for granted — hence the stretch of depressingly lobotomized movies about materialistic career women who learn that a man is more important than their Manolos. (See: Sweet Home Alabama, Sex and the City, Confessions of a Shopaholic, The Ugly Truth.) Perhaps studio executives looked at the diminishing returns on their diminishing-quality films and decided to scrap the whole genre.

"I do think, for a few years, an awful lot of rom-coms were made to feed a certain segment of the audience. I'm not sure anyone making them had huge ambitions," Meyers says. "But honestly, can't that be said of a lot of genres? And I don't see those disappearing." After all, the concurrent flops The Green Hornet and The Green Lantern didn't persuade any studios to stop making superhero movies.

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 hundred-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 (two).

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

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."

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 accused of single-handedly 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.

A massive romantic-comedy smash was once a sure-fire 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.

Take How Do You Know, the 2010 James L. Brooks romantic comedy that banked its fortune on big names. Brooks spent $15 million to secure star Reese Witherspoon, $12 million on Jack Nicholson, another $10 million on Owen Wilson and a comparatively paltry $3 million on Paul Rudd. That's $40 million in salaries, and then somehow Brooks spent another $89 million shooting the thing.

How Do You Know proceeded to make just $30 million — $48.7 million if you tack on the total global gross. It's the poster child for how the modern romantic comedy went wrong: It was lazy and expensive, assuming its audience would show up for the names and forgive the clichéd script. But audiences aren't dumb.

That the major studios haven't funded another splashy romantic comedy since implies that they've once again drawn the wrong conclusion: If Reese and Jack can't make bank, why bother with the genre?

But that attitude, again, ignores Hollywood's own history.

When Julia Roberts was cast in 1990's Pretty Woman, she was so unknown that the studio got her for the bargain price of $300,000. Ditto Meg Ryan, who was a low-budget choice in 1989's When Harry Met Sally..., her first romantic comedy. The studios took a risk on unknown leads, and not only did they make huge profits, they also launched careers that would go on to reap major dividends.

Further evidence: The biggest romantic comedy ever is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a $5 million fluke with no-name stars. It raked in $241.4 million at the domestic box office and another $127.3 million globally.

So what if the adage that stars sell romantic comedies is wrong? Or, more specifically, what if it has been exaggerated and misapplied? What if, instead of two stars or four stars — or, in the case of Valentine's Day, fourteen stars — you need only one: the Richard Gere to your raw, red-haired beauty, the Billy Crystal to your untested blonde soap actress?

What if the key to a successful romantic comedy is simply getting the right leading man?

"Men are more interested in [romantic comedies] if the male characters have real roles and not just supporting parts," Meyers notes. "I've been lucky to work with guys men respond to, like Mel Gibson, Jack Nicholson, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. I think those actors help men feel more comfortable with the genre."

Perhaps, instead of an actress shortage, romantic comedies are experiencing an actor crisis. We can name ingenues who should be making romantic comedies: Emma Stone, Kat Dennings, Jennifer Lawrence. But who would they act against? As counterintuitive as it is to suggest, what if the key to a successful romantic comedy isn't the actress but the actor?

With four romantic comedies that have topped $100 million — The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates, Mr. Deeds and Just Go With It — Adam Sandler has proven that men will buy tickets to romantic comedies that offer a male perspective. The Farrelly brothers hammered home the point with There's Something About Mary, and Judd Apatow scored two more touchdowns with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.

In fact, the last decade has seen as many male-driven hit romantic comedies as traditional female ones. The definition of a romantic comedy has stretched so much that the line where it stops and the R-rated sex comedy begins has become blurred: For every escapist stiletto flick, there's a raunchy Zack and Miri Make a Porno; for every wedding-centric Made of Honor, there's a free-wheeling No Strings Attached.

"In our opinion, Knocked Up was the last great romantic comedy, and that was seven years ago," says Evan Mirzai, who with his brother, Shea, co-authored the second unproduced rom-com script on the Black List, Doppelgangers, a naughty romp about identical twins (like them) competing for the same woman. "Every guy goes through the same things that women do in these movies. We all try to have relationships and keep things together. So why not do it in such a way where you can say 'fuck' 50 times and have a guy realize that he's falling in love?"

Call it evolution or devolution, but the change in tone dovetails with larger cultural changes: Both young men and women increasingly prioritize friends and careers over marriage and family. People are dating longer, settling down later and seeing relationships less as a one-shot attempt at a soulmate and more as another chapter in their biography.

In 2006, Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn's The Break-Up was novel because they didn't reconcile at the end. Now, bittersweet — or at least ambiguous — endings are expected. In pursuit of emotional truth, love stories that could have been comedies have sobered up and become winsome romantic dramas like The Spectacular Now, Blue Jasmine and The Best Man Holiday.

"There's a little bit of disillusionment with that perfect relationship," explains Los Angeles–based therapist Caroline Frost, who specializes in romantic angst. "More movies are puncturing the fantasy. Even on television, you're seeing more shows with couples counselors as a character, so you're getting more of a sense of people working through things, as opposed to fate swooping in and making everything happen."

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.

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."

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 ten 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 tenth 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 more than 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 eleven times over. Spider-Man made more cash, but it wasn't as profitable.

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.

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.

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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