Who killed the romantic comedy?

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

Who killed the romantic comedy?
Tim Gabor

The corpse lay crumpled on the conference table, close enough that the studio executive could tug on the red heel of her Louboutins. She'd been lying there unnoticed, or perhaps just ignored, for quite some time. Her wedding veil was tattered and someone had spilled coffee on her white satin dress. A receipt had been crudely shoved in her bouquet.

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

The romantic comedy is dead.

Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler 
in The Wedding Singer (1998)
Photo by Zade Rosenthal. © 1998 New Line Cinema.
Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer (1998)
Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson in How Do You Know (2010)
Photo by David James. © 2010 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.
Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson in How Do You Know (2010)

In 1997, there were two romantic comedies among the top 20 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: 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 on screen — or 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.

What happened?

As in an Agatha Christie novel, there are many suspects. Some observers blame teenagers, who aren't interested in any romance that doesn't start with a "bro" (and preferably stars two guys in capes). Others 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 point to the all-important foreign markets, or j'accuse ourselves, arguing 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: Teenagers

Their folks can't live with them, and Hollywood can't live without them. Like helicopter parents, the big studios dote on teenagers, cranking out films to satisfy their whims and losing major bank when they don't buy in. Scanning the list of PG-13 comic-book movies dominating the charts, you'd assume teens must purchase the majority of tickets.

Yet it's just not so. High schoolers make up 8 percent of the population and buy 12 percent of movie tickets. They bat above their weight, but they're no guarantee of a home run. Add in the 18-to-24 crowd and together they buy only 31 percent of tickets. Even if you throw in kids under 11, they still don't have the clout to control the box office.

"Teenage boys clearly drive a portion of the box office, though their overall impact is often overstated," Box Office Mojo editor Ray Subers says. "They are far from the majority of moviegoers."

Who actually buys tickets? Grown-ups. Adults over 25 fill 58 percent of all seats, which makes sense. Who has more disposable income: kids making minimum wage at McDonald's, or adults with a 401(k)? Studios counter that adults often choose to wait for a rental, but at least they're spending money. Teenagers are more likely to pirate films for free.

Break moviegoer age down by decade, and people between 40 and 49 purchase as many tickets as teenagers do. Senior citizens spend more than kids and tweens. And when Hollywood makes romantic comedies for older audiences, they show up: The couples in As Good as It Gets, It's Complicated, and Something's Gotta Give have an average age of 56, and each film broke $100 million.

Meryl Streep is ahead of the curve. She made romantic comedies in 2008, 2009, and 2010, and each one was a hit. Yet conventional wisdom holds that movies for adults don't do well at the box office.

Director Paul Feig understands Hollywood's teenager mania firsthand, having created the high school TV series Freaks & Geeks before directing Bridesmaids and The Heat. Of Hollywood's insistence on catering to teens, he says, "I think it's turned into a catch-all. There are certain groups of people that will spend endlessly if they want to see something, and teenage boys have disposable income. But so do women and so do movie lovers."

What's striking isn't just that adults are keeping the industry afloat — it's that they're buying tickets even to fare that isn't made for them. Imagine if they had more options.

Suspect No. 2: Men

Men don't like romantic comedies — or they can't admit it. An executive at a major studio says that, in development meetings, there's a tacit agreement that a male "no" means more 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," Feig explains. "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."

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17 comments
Todd Ray
Todd Ray

Not reading but feel that money and good writing is getting in the way. Too easy to make special effects, they make escaping easier.

Joe Duggan
Joe Duggan

solid choice for a cover picture! but still not going to read the story..

Ray Baltera
Ray Baltera

It's the exact same story every time

SylviaMiller6
SylviaMiller6

@raelaschoenherr Doris Day? Yes, please.Would love to read some CBA romantic comedy set in that era; light-hearted, humorous, and romantic!

 

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