Film and TV

Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?

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 at 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: There's 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 — and 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. The Big Wedding, 2013's sole boy-meets-girl-meets-matrimony comedy, was unceremoniously dumped into theaters by big indie Lionsgate and limped to No. 101 on the chart.

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 can't be cajoled into buying tickets. Scanning the list of PG-13 comic book movies dominating the charts, you'd assume teens must buy 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 — folks who can actually purchase tickets to R-rated flicks — 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." Case in point: When studios try to sell exclusively to them, as with the dude-bro comedy That Awkward Moment, the movie flops.

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 a romantic comedy every year 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."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.