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What Went Wrong with Hollywood Romantic Comedies?

by Anthony D'Alessandro
December 21, 2010 8:49 AM
18 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

What went wrong with the romantic comedy genre this year? Have the Hollywood studios lost the winning formula for pulling the date crowd? Anthony D'Alessandro lists five reasons why the rom-com has lost its mojo:


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. 

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More: Box Office, Genres, Studios, Romance

18 Comments

  • anonymous | January 10, 2011 9:07 AMReply

    "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."

    I don't mind romantic comedies with a bit of drama. Some of the best have been more dramedies than comedies like Jerry Maguire. But then again Jerry Maguire was never melodramatic, whiny or depressing like some dramedies can be.

    "Women are getting tried of romantic fantasy; they want to see more ‘mature’ romantic movies like EAT PRAY LOVE."

    I don't think there's anything wrong with romantic fantasy as long as its not insulting or dumb but most romantic comedies are these days, Its sad how many directors/writers and sometimes actors who do romantic comedies do not seem to take much pride in their work.

  • Rob T. | December 24, 2010 5:19 AMReply

    I'm amazed no one has mentioned Tangled, which is among other things a first-rate romantic comedy in the classic screwball tradition (a mismatched couple using each other to get something else they want, each slowly learning to respect and then to cherish the other's special qualities).

  • Rick Rapier | December 22, 2010 10:51 AMReply

    Chemistry is a myth born of well-written, well-directed romantic comedies that were both funny and romantic. Over the last few years Hollywood has been bludgeoned for thinking that films which violate the precepts and expectations of the audience can be overcome by casting "stars." It's like blaming Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel for THE HAPPENING not being scary.

    The problem with HOW DO I KNOW is not its stars; it's deviation from the precepts of the genre. If rom-coms violate those, then failure will ensue no matter who headlines them.

  • Sergio | December 22, 2010 10:48 AMReply

    I have to agree with cadavra 100%

  • cadavra | December 22, 2010 10:03 AMReply

    The great romantic comedies of the past starred and were made by grown-ups who'd actually lived life and knew what their audiences wanted to see. The studios today are mostly run by cosseted rich people who, to paraphrase Paddy Chayefsky, learned everything they know about life from Beavis and Butthead.

  • Anthony | December 22, 2010 8:19 AMReply

    By more...I meant in terms of awards campaigning.

  • Anthony | December 22, 2010 8:18 AMReply

    I am surprised more isn't being done for "Eat Pray Love"...I'm not a Julia Roberts fan, and I thought that and Duplicity were her two best films.

  • Anthony | December 22, 2010 8:17 AMReply

    I am one of the biggest James L. Brooks fans in the world and still cling to "Broadcast News," easily identifying with Albert Brooks' character at the early age of 16 (whoa...TMI!)

  • marlon | December 22, 2010 7:23 AMReply

    eat pray love, although it's a sugary hollywood fantasy, was quite good and julia roberts showed everyone she can still carry a movie and give a great performance even if the story sometimes fails her.

  • Brian | December 22, 2010 5:46 AMReply

    What today's filmmakers REALLY need to do is look back at some classic romantic comedies to see why they worked. They started out with great scripts. They got great stars (think Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Doris Day, Rock Hudson, etc.). They got great directors (think Leo McCarey, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Mitchell Leisen, Preston Sturges, George Stevens, etc.).

    Off the top of my head, check these out:

    THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937)
    BRINGING UP BABY (1938)
    MIDNIGHT (1939)
    MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940)
    THE LADY EVE (1941)
    THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942)
    WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942)
    PILLOW TALK (1959)
    LOVER COME BACK (1962)

  • Mike | December 22, 2010 5:30 AMReply

    "Aren't suppose to"? "Lightening in a bottle?" Jesus, how did you make it through High School English?

  • Sergio | December 22, 2010 4:54 AMReply

    "Latifah took a stab at one and it underperformed because her target audience did not buy her in a a romantic lead role(for what ever reason)".

    It's very obvious why the audience didn't buy her as a romantic lead and that's because of her well known personal life which she seems to be very open about off camera and which has been constant fodder for all the gossip blogs.

    And the difference between the typical rom-com of today of a film like Black Swan is that the latter is a WOMAN'S film not so different than the kind of films that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford used to make. Adult women dealing with serious issues. Women (AND MEN) are more interested nowadays to see that sort of film than another lame predictable rom-com

  • AC | December 22, 2010 4:54 AMReply

    Hollywood squeezes out an endless stream of badly written, poorly produced, formulaic crap - and they can't comprehend why nobody wants to see it? Maybe hiring incompetent executives, writers, directors, and actors was a mistake?

  • AC | December 22, 2010 4:53 AMReply

    Hollywood squeezes out an endless stream of badly written, poorly produced, formulaic crap - and they can't comprehend why nobody wants to see it? Maybe hiring incompetent executives, writers, directors, and actors was a mistake?

  • Brian | December 22, 2010 3:32 AMReply

    Normally, I wouldn't go to a rom-com if you paid me, but pair Jason Statham and Megan Fox in one of these and I'll be there opening night, especially if they throw in some giant robots and kung fu!

  • Barbara W | December 22, 2010 2:21 AMReply

    No Anne they are not dead and will never be but here's my opinion for what it's worth...To much fantasy it's old and tired,...Same old faces Reese, Aniston,Heigl,Lopez recycling the same story over and over.

    Latifa took a stab at one and it underperformed because her target audience did not buy her in a a romantic lead role(for what ever reason).
    Tina Fey(new face) and Roberts had a different stories.

    2011 looks hopeful in January there are two one with Connolly and Ryder in a very different story...And the Portman's first venture in this genre also a fresh face and story based on the single woman in today's real world dealing head on with sex and intimacy...No nudity...I'm looking forward to both as I want to see Portman in something light and different that is not mired in heavy duty drama after seeing "Black Swan"...So there is hope there.

  • Emma | December 22, 2010 2:08 AMReply

    What about Dear John?! It made over 100 millions dollars.

  • Joy | December 22, 2010 12:48 AMReply

    Women are getting tried of romantic fantasy; they want to see more 'mature' romantic movies like EAT PRAY LOVE.

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