Romantic comedies have been a staple in the Hollywood machine for as long as movies have been around. But the 1980s and 1990s was the genre’s golden era, as the likes of Rob Reiner (“When Harry Met Sally…”), Garry Marshall (“Overboard,” “Pretty Woman”), and Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail”) elevated the movies into emotional tear-jerkers that were perfect for date nights.
For those decades, the titles were solid box office moneymakers for the studios, and went on to become cash cows on DVD and cable (where many still play to this day).
And though the early 2000s saw new classics come into the fold like “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “Hitch,” around 2010 romantic comedies at the studio level drastically slowed down. In recent years, they have all but stopped. Since 2010, rom-coms went from nine major studio wide releases (a high water mark for the genre in the 2000s) to zero released at the studio level in 2017.
The last rom-com to earn over $US100 million domestically at the box office was 2015’s “Trainwreck.”
A big factor is the studios realised that comic book movies were where the money was (especially overseas, where rom-coms rarely ever make coin). The major studios only had three wide releases of comic book adaptations in 2010. Since then, there’s been a steady stream of six, sometimes eight (in 2014) comic book movies released by the studios yearly. By the end of 2017, five will have hit the multiplex.
But all the blame can’t be pointed at Iron Man and Wonder Woman. The studios also lost touch with how young people today connect romantically.
“Less people are getting married, or getting married young now than they were years ago, and the whole dating culture with the apps and online, there’s a subtle sea change in what that audience is looking at in terms of romantic comedy entertainment,” Billy Mernit, author of “Writing the Romantic Comedy” and story analyst at Universal, told Business Insider. “So you have the studios still making the same formulaic romantic comedy where it’s a courtship story that leads to marriage, and it usually revolves around a young professional woman who gets a leg up by getting involved with an alpha male. The target audience, the twentysomethings and above, just no longer related to that kind of a movie and yet the studios seemed to be tone deaf to that change.”
But romantic comedies haven’t gone away completely. They have been modernised at the independent film level and have found success there.
Over the years movies like 2014’s “Obvious Child” and 2015’s “Sleeping with Other People” have proven that rom-coms can delve into some dramatic waters while still cracking jokes about the dating scene.
One of the most talked about movies of 2017 is Judd Apatow-produced “The Big Sick.” Though it’s a romantic comedy, what stands out is its unique multicultural love story between a Pakistani man (Kumail Nanjiani) and white woman (Zoe Kazan). And it manages to find laughs even though it revolves around the guy caring for the girl who is in a coma.
The buzz about the movie going into this year’s Sundance led to Amazon buying it for $US12 million. Lionsgate is doing the theatrical release, and the movie has grossed over $US35 million worldwide to date (it was made for $US5 million).
“There is slowly a shift in perception on what a romantic comedy is,” Mernit said. “The smart romantic comedy writer of 2017 is writing a script that they aren’t calling a romantic comedy. They have to have a fresh angle.”
Or perhaps the smart rom-com writer is headed to TV. As movies find success now with raunchy R-rated comedies like “Bad Mums” and “Girls Trip,” Mernit pointed out TV is where you can find the rom-coms, whether its “The Mindy Project” or “Catastrophe.”
“The Catch 22 of the industry right now is the fact that tentpoles supersede all other types of filmmaking,” Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, told Business Insider. “Truth is, the romantic comedy genre doesn’t seem to have too many maestros as it once did. The Nora Ephrons of the world have faded to black, and love and laughs seem to have gone the way of the sitcom, and into streaming content.”
So even though occasionally we may see someone like Amy Schumer convince a studio to release a movie starring her in search for love, the rom-com of yesteryear is pretty much extinct.
“The golden era of a romantic comedy coming out every week, we’re done with that,” Mernit said. “But the romantic comedy genre will never die because whether it’s lesbian lovers, a threesome, or a girlfriend in a coma, we are still interested in seeing those stories. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”