Hollywood enjoyed a lovely honeymoon with romantic comedies in 2009 with such hits as The Proposal ($164 million) and It’s Complicated ($112.7 million). But this year, the genre has been nothing but a forgettable one-night stand at the domestic B.O. James L. Brooks’ $110 million Reese Witherspoon headliner How Do You Know is the latest rom-com in a long string to break its heels, opening to a tear-jerking $7.5 million. But Reese Witherspoon isn’t the only American Sweetheart with runs in her stockings: cover girls Jennifer Aniston, Anne Hathaway, Rachel McAdams and Katherine Heigl also lost face with fickle moviegoers.
Instead, women flocked to see riveting girl-power trips such as Salt and The Black Swan; they also chased hunk-heavy headliners The Social Network, The Fighter and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.
“The thing about the latest crop of romantic comedies is that they’ve had no chemistry," said one distribution chief. "The great ones always have some sort of spark. The stuff that’s been out there looks like it’s been done a hundred times.”
Some battles of the sexes did work at the domestic B.O., including Warner Bros./New Line’s Garry Marshall-helmed ensemble Valentine’s Day ($110.5 million), Fox’s Tina Fey-Steve Carell vehicle Date Night ($98.7 million), Sony’s Julia Roberts bestseller chick lit adaptation Eat Pray Love ($80.7 million) and sister label Screen Gems’ gorgeous cash cow Easy A ($58.4 million), which launched Emma Stone to leading-lady status and a Golden Globe best actress comedy nod. Other romances were able to make up stateside shortfalls with foreign grosses, such as Fox’s Knight and Day ($117 million cost, $262.3 million global haul) and Warner/New Line’s Sex and the City 2 ($100 million cost, $288.3 million worldwide).
Excuses for each film’s failure are myriad, but here are five ways the studios went wrong in 2010:
1. Studios spent too much. The majors may have curbed their spending on dramas to a $25 to $40 million cap, but they miscalculated profit ratios on rom-coms. These relationship films aren’t suppose to be expensive. They have minimal to zero VFX shots and are set to profit on home turf with foreign takes as upside gravy. Brooks didn’t need to shell out $50 million on How Do You Know's dramatis personae. Actors are clamoring to work with him. Like Woody Allen, he can name his own price for talent, just like he can demand final cut. Some studios keep stepping up to higher rom-com bills as leading ladies’ paychecks spike with each hit. As Heigl’s payday swelled from $6 million to $13 million between The Ugly Truth ($88.9 million) and The Killers ($47.1 million), so did the film's respective budgets jump from $38 million to $75 million.
Likewise, Sex and the City 2 ($95.3 million domestic B.O.) was 54% more expensive than its first chapter, which cost $65 million and grossed $415.3 worldwide. The real ugly truth is that just as A-grade actresses get paid more, their films often bomb. Marshall was able to keep a $52-million rein on Valentine’s Day by minimizing shooting days for Roberts and Hathaway. Studios looking to launch fresh faces and break formulaic rules gambled less: frugal Screen Gems spent just $8 million on Easy A.
2. Filmmakers mismatched genres. Comedy-dramas can pose marketing challenges and mislead audiences. Edward Zwick’s Love & Other Drugs ($30.2 million) was sold as an adult sexy comedy in its posters, but critics were put off by the melodramatic Parkinson Disease plotline centering around Hathaway’s character. Moaning mid-life crisis protags proved unattractive and unfunny in How Do You Know. And what exactly is The Tourist ($30.6 million domestic B.O., $100+ million cost)? Sony’s trailers pitched it as a suspense thriller, but director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck told the Hollywood Foreign Press that it’s a comedy.
3. Marketers sent the wrong message. Rom-com ad campaigns fell short in lucidly selling their plots. What message was Paramount sending in its Morning Glory outdoor/print ads? The question asked in their one-sheets was: “What’s the story? Morning Glory.” What did that mean? Most Witherspoon vehicles carry a catchy title with a clear idea of her film’s premise: Legally Blonde easily conveys that it’s about a ditzy blonde attorney. How Do You Know's print ads were as confusing as the stars’ facial expressions. The promos for Sex and the City 2 pried the film from its New York roots and core fans by playing up its Abu Dhabi setting. One distrib exec cried, “It’s not called ‘Sex and the Desert!’” One effective poster was Fox’s Date Night campaign, which displayed Carell and Fey muddied up and dressed to the nines – clear proof that the comedy was about a romantic night gone wrong.
4. Bad timing. Rom-coms largely serve as counter programming on the release schedule. However, there were potholes on the calendar. Memorial Day weekend is primed for family/tentpole fare, not femme-driven films like Sex and the City 2. Warner Bros. succeeded with the bow of the first Sex and the City by making its non-holiday weekend an event for its fangirls. Love & Other Drugs and Burlesque could have padded their ticket sales by staying out of each other’s way during the crowded Thanksgiving weekend. Both attracted women over 25. On the other hand, Fox’s Date Night showed impeccable timing, catering to adults after kids’ spring break. Unopposed by frosh studio bows, the pic chalked up a solid $25.2 million start during the April 9-11 weekend.
5. Relying on tarnished star power. Lead actors are supposed to be insurance against bad scripts; assets that lure financing and solidify decent projections. Brooks' How Do You Know has thrown a monkey wrench into those formulas, proving that the team of Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson and Paul Rudd did not trigger a stampede. The film's paltry bow demonstrates that audiences are savvier in the social media age, read more web reviews and aren't easily duped. The star system works only when romantic stars are well-matched.
Fox caught lightning in a bottle by toplining Date Night with two popular NBC sitcom stars, Fey and Carell. Strong marquee stars are essential, especially when their partner is not an event-driven commodity like Roberts (who ably carried Eat Pray Love). Thus Josh Duhamel didn’t work wonders for Kristen Bell (When in Rome: $32.7 million domestic) nor Katherine Heigl (Life as We Know It: $52.2 million domestic). However, Vince Vaughn saved the day with last year’s Couples Retreat: $109.2 million). Several date movie stars need to regain heir footing: Aniston must pick a better crop of directors/projects that translate to the masses and critics. Meanwhile, Heigl, one of the few femmes who can get a romantic comedy off the ground battles a bad diva image and sliding ticket sales, off significantly from her 2007 high, Judd Apatow's Knocked Up ($148.8 million).
Rom-coms are not yet dead: but they’re in need of serious repair.