Who killed the romantic comedy?

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.

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."

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." That's all changed.

Except it hasn't. Women continue to buy 51 percent of all movie tickets, a figure that becomes even more impressive when you calculate 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 10 films starred a female protagonist.

"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's 2001 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.

Why does Hollywood think it can afford the loss? The only explanation is industrywide 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.

Suspect No. 3: Bad Scripts

Of course, Bridesmaids wasn't a classic romantic comedy. 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 Chris O'Dowd's Irish cop was secondary.

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. 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."

Smart writers used to write romantic comedies: Think Nora Ephron, James L. Brooks, Amy Heckerling, Cameron Crowe, John Hughes, not to mention 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 100-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 (also two).

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


And 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. In executives' eyes, the female buddy comedy supplanted the romantic comedy. And then they didn't make any buddy comedies, either.

Prosser finally sold her script, although it did not go to a major studio. Amazon's upstart film production company bought The One That Got Away. With its reams of data tracking, the online behemoth must feel confident the film will find viewers.

Still, getting it 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."

Suspect No. 4: Stars

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, only half-jokingly, 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. Killers was a flop, but after three hits in a row, most actors deserve a pass. Not that Heigl got one.

After the scripts got bad, many actors fled the romantic comedy lest they, too, get labeled box office poison. Titans of the genre such as Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, and Matthew McConaughey dashed back to dramas, and promising newcomers like Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence followed suit. Who can blame them? All five are currently nominated for Academy Awards.

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 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.

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 but also launched careers that would go on to reap major dividends.


So what if the adage that stars sell romantic comedies is wrong? Or what if it has been exaggerated and misapplied? What if, instead of two stars or four stars, you need only one: the Richard Gere to your raw, red-haired beauty, the Billy Crystal to your untested blond soap actress?

"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. What if the key to a successful romantic comedy isn't the actress but the actor?

Suspect No. 5: Changing Mores

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 with a male perspective. The Farrelly brothers hammered home the point with There's Something About Mary, and then 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.

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.

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.

"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."

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 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."

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."

Suspect No. 6: Superheroes and Sequels

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 10 moneymakers were sequels, or reboots of old series with numbers in their titles. The ninth was a Disney cartoon; the 10th 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.


But the obsession with franchises comes with a high cost. Blockbusters don't always make money but they do 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.

The biggest rom-com in 2012, Silver Linings Playbook, made just over half the domestic gross of The Amazing Spider-Man. Worldwide, it made a third as much: $236 million versus $752 million. But Silver Linings Playbook cost $21 million, a fraction of Spider-Man's $230 million budget, and made its money back 11 times over. Spider-Man made more but wasn't as profitable.

If studios shelved their weakest blockbuster, they could fund five to 10 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 by 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 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.

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.)

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.

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.

In truth, foreign audiences like romantic comedies. Way back in 1990, Pretty Woman made 61.5 percent of its money abroad. Until 2012, the No. 1 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.

However, the growing giant is China, which last year edged out Japan as Hollywood's No. 1 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 3-D. Not so good for love stories.

Still, China imports only a quarter of studio releases. The vast majority of Hollywood films have zero need to please Chinese tastes.

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 that 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 and male auteurs too serious for light-hearted romance.

Bold changes come from vacuums. It's happening 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.

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, yet it earned an A+ among young men, according to CinemaScore exit surveys. Think Like a Man made $96 million despite its lower-profile cast.


Interestingly, while 85 percent of black audiences were aware of Think Like a Man before it opened, only 37 percent of white moviegoers even knew it existed.

There's a parallel here: Black audiences, like female audiences, have been historically underserved by Hollywood. Only a handful of filmmakers are making films for an audience all too hungry to see its stories onscreen. In return, they've been richly rewarded by moviegoers.

If Sandler and Barrymore's Blended also does well, expect to see industry pundits clutching their Ouija boards and proclaiming that the romantic comedy has been resurrected. But not so fast. Its murderer is still on the loose — and it will kill again.

Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer (1998)
Photo by Zade Rosenthal. © 1998 New Line Cinema.

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