How rom-coms bombed - is the romance genre now doomed?
A boy-meets-girl theme used to be a surefire success in Hollywood, but now rom-com parody They Came Together has made a laughing stock of the genre. So what's a leading lady to do?
Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30
When films like When Harry Met Sally tackle evergreen themes like romance and soulmates, you'd think it's safe to assume that they'll be around and much-loved forever.
Which is probably why it's so surprising that critics have called the latest rom-com, a parody called They Came Together, a 'post-mortem of the genre'. Poehler and Paul Rudd star as the couple who hate each other, then love each other, then hate each other again while secretly loving each other. The careworn tropes are all present and correct: Poehler is a sweet, pratfall-prone sweetshop owner, while Rudd is the bigwig about to put her out of business. She has a wise-cracking best friend, while his mate is a skirt-chasing hound. And so the pair bump into each other all over New York City, with varying degrees of friction. Sound familiar?
Twenty years ago, if a studio wanted to hit paydirt at the box office, a rom-com with all the trimmings was a fairly safe bet. But not anymore. Compare Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes bonanza opening weekend at the US box office ($72.6m) compared to Sex Tape's relatively soft $14.6m. The Hollywood Reporter quotes producer Lynda Obst (Sleepless In Seattle) as saying: "I don't see any appetite for rom-coms from the studios."
Among the notable box-office disappointments in recent years are 2013's Big Wedding (cost $35m, took $22m in US box office receipts) and 2010's Going The Distance (cost $32m, took $18m in the US).
A 2014 report by the Study Of Women in Film & TV in San Diego found that of the top 100 grossing films of 2013, only 15pc of protagonists were female.
"Hollywood has its gaze firmly trained on China and other overseas markets, and the films that do well overseas are not 'talky' films like rom-coms," asserts Professor Diane Negra of UCD's School of English, Drama and Film.
The rom-com is also lacking one big factor: star power. The likes of Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Kate Hudson have distanced themselves from the genre, while their ostensible successors - Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone or Anne Hathaway - are plumping instead for 'tentpole' franchises (that is, films which often carry price tags in excess of $200m).
"There has been the distinct ageing and waning of the commercial power of the stars who propelled the genre," she says. "Younger Hollywood stars see rom-com roles as too formulaic."
So why the apparent disconnect? Hollywood rarely has a problem with formulaic genres - there are 23 Bond films, after all. Even more curiously, an MPAA report in 2013 reported that women buy 52pc of all cinema tickets in the US. One theory claims that, in the post-digital age where romance and dating happen online, the soft and squishy values of the typical rom-com are obsolete.
"The thing about films like You've Got Mail or Sleepless In Seattle is that they're all very chaste," explains Negra. "The conventions have of course been sourced in Shakespeare comedies and screwballs, where banter is at the heart of intimacy.
"But these films put out the idea that outside of romance, men and women can't relate to or really know each other."
Adds Karla Healion, founder of Dublin's forthcoming Feminist Film Festival: "The big studios tried to emulate success of rom-coms like Pretty Woman, and then tried to cut corners and ended up saturating the market with a slew of cheap, badly produced, awfully written projects. A classic case of the suits at the top getting it horribly wrong and missing the zeitgeist.
"We all know that 2.4 children is well gone, but now feelings around relationship longevity, marriage, sexual orientation, independence, being a parent, have all publicly changed too," she adds. "Also, audiences are more cinematically educated; we want well-shot films with fleshed-out characters and decent writing, not two-dimensional, transparent pap."
In recent years, there has been an appetite instead for a new sort of chick-flick: the chick flick with a male protagonist, dealing with male issues and problems.
"There's been a preoccupation with men in crisis, as in many of the Judd Apatow movies like I Love You Man or This Is 40. In Ireland, we've experienced this phenomenon too with The Stag," observes Negra. "This theme has become so strong and defining that it's clouded out other narratives that are female-centred."
All is not lost, however. Instead, 'for-her' movies have arguably shape-shifted into something much more interesting and less saccharine. 2012's low-key offering Silver Linings Playbook took €236m worldwide, while this summer, The Fault In Our Star s took $48m in its opening weekend stateside.
'Sismance' flicks are also seeing a slow and stealthy climb: where 2011's Bridesmaids has blazed the trail, films like The Heat, Frances Ha, Life Partners and The Other Woman have followed.
Interesting things are afoot on the small screen too, where the 'sisterhood' vehicle is definitely trending. Given that TV - especially cable TV - is not at the mercy of the Hollywood studio system, there is much more wriggle-room for character development and boundary pushing. After the resounding success of Lena Dunham's HBO project Girls and Netflix's prison drama Orange Is The New Black, several other projects have focused on the imperfect, shadowy and rich complexities of female friendship: Sky Living's Doll & Em; America's Playing House, and Comedy Central's sublime Broad City.
"TV is picking up the flak after the reduction in chick-flick production," says Negra. "Romance is becoming de-romanticised, like a new TV show that's coming to (US cable channel) FX in the Autumn called You're The Worst (about a couple who sleep together but don't really like each other)."
As cinematic themes go, 'boy meets girl' might well be under fire, yet audiences are certainly warming up to the 'girl meets girl' trope. So where to from here?
"I think we still like the notion of a romantic film, or a funny film. Who doesn't?" surmises Healion. "The key is to recognise, support, celebrate and empower women who work in film and writers who write great female roles; independent, goal-driven, intelligent, interesting and exciting characters that are not just women dropped into a male lead role."
* The Feminist Film Festival takes place on August 30-31 in Dublin. See www.feminist-filmfestival-dublin.com for information on festival.
Gross...Big money makers
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (grossed $241m): Nia Vardalos wrote/starred in this mid-budget comedy about a woman who brings her fiancé home to meet her chaotic Greek family.
What Women Want ($182m): Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt star as two ambitious ad execs working on a new project.
Hitch ($179m): This Will Smith vehicle was a surprise box office smash in 2005. Also starred Eva Mendes in one of her first major movie roles.
Pretty Woman ($178m): Long considered a classic: stars Julia Roberts as a good-time girl who encounters an uptight billionaire client (Richard Gere).
There's Something About Mary ($176m): Cameron Diaz and Ben Stiller play high school sweethearts in this Farrelly Brothers slice of grossout comedy.