Can the Romantic Comedy Be Saved?

C656-14 Photo: Warner Bros., Corbis

It was not that long ago when romantic comedies were a reliable date-night staple at the box office. It was a carefree, frothy time, when Julia, J. Lo, Kate, Katherine, Sandra, and Reese could show up onscreen, meet cute with just about any handsome male specimen, and pull in seven figures. But audiences seem to be falling out of love with the genre: The near-total rejection of Gerard Butler’s Playing for Keeps ($12 million, and fading fast) is only the latest casualty.

Earlier this year, Wanderlust ($17 million) and The Five-Year Engagement ($28 million) fizzled, while the genre’s once-reigning doyenne, Reese Witherspoon, saw her hybrid action/rom-com, This Means War, met with yawning indifference: It grossed just $54 million domestically, ten million less than its explosion-heavy budget. The highest-grossing rom-com of the year was Kevin Hart’s Think Like a Man ($91 million), and that film never truly broke out beyond its predominantly African-American target audience. “It is the hardest time of my 30 years in the business of doing them,” said Lynda Obst, the producer of romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle, One Fine Day, and How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. Vulture asked several top filmmakers, producers, and executives for a heart-to-heart about the reasons why the genre is getting the cold shoulder — and as with most splintering relationships, there’s plenty of blame thrown back and forth: Studio chiefs blame audiences and stars, directors and producers blame studios and audiences, and agents blame their clients.

The downward slope of the rom-com’s fortunes has been steep. Just a decade ago, theaters were packed with date-night fare that took in hundreds of millions of dollars: In 2002, the top five highest-grossing romantic comedies alone — My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Sweet Home Alabama, Maid in Manhattan, and Two Weeks Notice — collectively took in a whopping $555 million in domestic box office. There were seven rom-coms in the top 100 films of that year, and this septet averaged a $96 million take. In 2008, there were eleven rom-coms in the top 100, with an average domestic gross of $77 million. By 2010, there were fourteen rom-coms in the top 100 highest grossing films — but their average domestic gross had dropped to $53 million. This year the average gross in the top 100 is up a hair to $54 million, but that’s based on only four movies that have cracked that list. (Many more did not.)

There are many execs who believe that audiences are rejecting these light romances because they are increasingly unrelatable given how dating and courtship have morphed in the 2010s. “I think it’s because the whole entire dating scene has changed,” says the head of production at one major studio, who declined to speak for attribution lest it seem the studio is uninterested in even seeing romantic comedy scripts.

Some in Hollywood use demographics to divine the reasons that audiences have lost interest in the genre: In America, people have never waited longer to get married. For brides, the median marriage age is 26.5 years, and for grooms it’s 28.7 years, according to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of 2010 U.S. Census data: For both genders, that’s about six years higher than it was 50 years ago. A December 2011 Pew report found that “barely half of all adults in the United States — a record low — are currently married” and that these declines have occurred among all age groups, “but are most dramatic among young adults: Just 20% of adults ages 18 to 29 are married, compared with almost 60% in 1960.” Perhaps most at odds with the universal theme of the romantic comedy is this nugget from Pew’s 2010 study: When asked if there is one true love for every person, only 28 percent of women agreed; that was 3 percent lower than men. Some studio execs extrapolate from this data that romance and the idea of “happily ever after” is less of an all-consuming fantasy, and so the traditional tropes of the romantic comedy are too quaint, even obsolete.

“Even fifteen years ago, if you had to pick the most important decision you’d face, I think we’d agree that it would be the person you’d pick to be with for the rest of your life,” says James L. Brooks, director of some of the most successful romantic comedies of all time (Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets), who recently ran into difficulty with the disastrous How Do You Know. “If that’s true, how can it not be fodder for a movie? But, to trust the research, it’s not nearly as important [now]; lives are more complicated and the fundamentals have changed. ‘We’re here today to watch these people meet, fall in love, have difficulty and wind up together forever?’ Maybe you can’t do that anymore. That tried-and-true formula is no longer true.”

However, any “romance is dead” theorizing suffers when you look at how melodramatic love stories seem to be doing just fine. Screen Gems this year had its highest-grossing release ever with The Vow ($125 million in the U.S.), and the seemingly endless stream of Nicholas Sparks adaptations have been reliable grossers, like Dear John and The Lucky One.

Many agree that there’s more to the rom-com decline than American women saying “It’s not you — it’s me.” Peter Farrelly, who co-wrote and directed the 1998 Ur-gross-out rom-com There’s Something About Mary, says a large amount of blame for the decline rests not with demography (“Harry and Sally weren’t spring chickens, keep in mind”), but with Hollywood’s studios and their ever-greater emphasis on blockbuster franchises. A one-off romance not only offers no visual spectacle, but also holds little promise of future, dependable cash flow. “Everyone’s looking for the next sequel,” says Farrelly. “But with romantic comedies, it doesn’t happen that way. What happens after ‘happily ever after,’ people aren’t that interested in. There was actually talk for a while at Fox about doing a There’s Something Else About Mary — to which we said, ‘We’ll do that only if it turns out that Mary has balls.’ I have no interest in remaking the same movie over again.”

JC Spink, a partner in the management and production company BenderSpink, which has executive produced romantic comedies like Monster-in-Law and Just Friends, notes that the rom-com genre has been damaged by studios’ desire to make every film appeal to everyone. “The studios have gone from aiming for one or two quadrants — younger women and older women — to three or four,” says Spink. Hence: the proliferation of the Apatow brand to bring in men; centering rom-coms around boorish, Tucker Max–ish guys (The Ugly Truth); or braiding romances with other genres like action or sci-fi (This Means War; The Adjustment Bureau). “But the effect, I think, is that the movie actually becomes less appealing to women,” says Spink.

But even a mythical “four-quadrant” rom-com would have a smaller chance at a giant payday than a giant explode-o-rama, because a blockbuster’s sensory overload demands it be seen on the big screen. Romantic comedies don’t need a multiplex, especially at a time when ticket prices are skyrocketing to record highs. Viewers know that they can get more enjoyment and reflected romance from watching one of these films at home snuggled up on a couch than they can shelling out big bucks to go to a crowded theater filled with the very un-sexy ambient noise of texters, nacho gobblers, and loud commentators. “Yes, I think they don’t seem theatrical,” admits one co-president of a studio’s specialized film division, “No need to spend twelve bucks — there is no big production value or cultural urgency. People will wait for Netflix or Redbox.”

Rom-coms used to be powered by dependable stars, but these big actors and actresses aren’t the sure thing they used to be. There are two opposing schools of thought on how that has affected the genre, but both lead to fewer of these films being made. The first says that studios would make more of the films if they had more dependable names. “The romantic comedy genre is the ultimate movie-star genre,” says one agent, “and there just are not enough movie stars to sustain the same number of these films as you saw in years or decades past.” However, when Hollywood finds someone who has success in the genre, they cast them over and over again until people get tired of them (witness the declining grosses for Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson). Many young actresses and agents have seen these cautionary tales and steered clear of the genre altogether. As a studio production chief bemoans, “there’s a whole new generation of stars who aren’t willing to do them.” Ultimately, the biggest recent rom-com successes have been from the Garry Marshall school of ensemble comedies (New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, He’s Just Not That Into You), which aren’t centered on one possibly alienating or typecast-able star: There’s a diffusion of responsibility for an actor who signs on.

The other school of thought is that the genre has gotten old because studios package them solely with an eye as to which actors might make money. They study box-office performance and Q ratings, not who would be great in the role, regardless of past performance. “Romantic comedy is a genre for casting, not packaging,” says Obst. “These are fantasy machines: They require hormones, great casting, and chemistry. But that’s not how most studio movies are made today. They’re not cast by casting directors looking for [those factors]; they’re cast by picking whoever has the best international numbers, even though they’re generalizing from the wrong principle.” And then, Obst adds, when these miscast films fail, studios take it as proof that the genre is dead, and that the female moviegoer is “younger and driven only by franchises like The Hunger Games and Twilight.”

Marc Lawrence, the writer-director of hit rom-coms Music and Lyrics and Two Weeks Notice, and, more recently, the flopped Did You Hear About the Morgans?, says, “I think somewhere along the way, the studios began to mistake ‘form’ for ‘substance.’” With the familiar formulas no longer working, studios have come to believe that the category “rom-com” has become a stigma, and so they have been melding it with other genres. “The genre got a bad name somehow,” says Brooks, who posits that it “may have gone too far in the direction of ‘chick flick’” and that, as a result, “now, you almost need to hide what you’re doing.” A second studio chief acknowledges this camouflaging practice: “I think they’ve been replaced by broad comedies with some romance sprinkled in. Audiences seem to want a more extreme experience — Bridesmaids for sex, or Twilight; maybe Fifty Shades of Grey if it’s not awful. Even Judd [Apatow]’s movie [This Is 40] seems to be a comedy that affirms love, rather than a rom-com. Romantic comedies are too tepid and too fake. Women aren’t satisfied by that anymore.” Another studio co-head points to this year’s surprise hit Magic Mike, a $6 million comedy that has grossed a whopping $165 million worldwide, $113 million of it domestically: “Magic Mike gives you a female experience, but in a less tired and ‘seen before’ way.”

A third studio chief agrees, noting that the biggest romantic comedy to come along in years was actually released this year — we just didn’t realize it at the time: Ted, the raunchy Seth MacFarlane CGI comedy that grossed a massive half billion dollars worldwide, almost half of it here in the States. “On some level, Ted was a romantic comedy about a couple who fall in love,” says this third studio chief, “They just happened to be a man and his teddy bear.  But there was no question that their romance was true love.” (However, in all the talk of unconventional rom-coms, it should be noted that some of 2012’s big failures were twists on the genre: This Means War buried it in action, while Five-Year Engagement was mostly about a breakup.)

But though the genre is suffering at the box office, it is hard to believe that the very idea of a romantic comedy is completely losing favor. After all, what are sitcoms’ “will-they-won’t-they” arcs other than long romantic comedies? “I didn’t get married until two weeks after I turned 40,” insists Farrelly, “but I don’t think I went two weeks from the time I turned 14 without being in love. It’s a logical thing to want to see that.” The problem is, studios just have to find a way to show it in a form that’s worth twelve bucks a ticket and a seven-dollar bucket of popcorn.

Can the Romantic Comedy Be Saved?