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.

Illustration Tim Gabor
In hits such as The Wedding Singer, Adam Sandler has proven that a male perspective draws men to romantic comedies.
1998 New Line Cinema
In hits such as The Wedding Singer, Adam Sandler has proven that a male perspective draws men to romantic comedies.

"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.

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 number-one 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 number-one 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 3D. 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 plotlines 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+ 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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2 comments
cr0sh
cr0sh

Regarding the comments on "men": Any man who won't own up to enjoying a rom-com, or feels "uncomfortable" holding his wife's purse is, in my opinion, anything but a real man. 

I love an occasional rom-com; hell, my wife and I got married with the Wedding Singer's album playing in the background. What Women Want was fun and hilarious, despite Gibson since going off his rocker.

And I'll sling my wife's purse over my shoulder any day, whether it's while she shops, or just to give her a break carrying it (damn thing is heavy!). To hell with what other people think! I'm a man - I have nothing to prove to anyone else.

Jukes
Jukes

The young women who used to spur the rom-com audience are now more into the undead than the unfulfilled.  I was seated in a mall restaurant recently next to a group of women who looked to be average age 20,  Their whole conversation was about TV programs and movies that were post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, or contained characters who were facing very troubled times, like a heroine who stages her own death or a woman coming to terms her sex-related addictions ... not romance.  

They talked about special powers to control others or see the future as if people really have things like that.  One of them was showing off a "zombie bite" she had painted on herself.  After the oohs and aahs, it was declared "very realistic."  Seriously, what does it look like if you're bitten by a "real" zombie?  Judging by what this age groups seek out as entertainment (young men as well as young women), it seems we have an entire generation spending their time immersing themselves in worlds far, far different than the one they live in. Perhaps they're the children encouraged to read Harry Potter, all grown up now.  

 

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