Back in the good old days, all a Hollywood studio had to do to make tens of millions of dollars was release a film about a plucky, satisfyingly flawed female protagonist who finds quirky but ultimately bland love with a chesty yet tender-hearted man. Meet-cute, But I Can't Stand Him montage, scene where Everything Changes, infatuation montage, misunderstanding that threatens to derail the whole thing, dramatic gesture to correct misunderstanding, satisfying resolution. Boom. A Rom Com. But over the last few years, box office receipts have been disappointing. Hollywood execs say that audiences are sick of romantic comedy tropes, that the formula is tired. But women aren't tired of the romantic comedy formula at all; what we're tired of is films made by people who don't understand what female viewers want. And we've finally got other options.
The Hollywood Reporter wrote a Whole Big Thing declaring the romantic comedy deader than Bennifer, thanks to a sad salad of things that aren't studios' fault. There aren't enough young actors with star power to draw audiences, they say. International audiences don't care, they say. But mostly, they say, audiences are tired with a formula that's grown stale.
"Audiences aren't tired of romance; they're tiring of formulas," Sucsy says. "There is still a demand, and there always will be, for fresh and innovative stories that are smart and nuanced." The trouble, he says, "has arisen from the fact that easy marketing and original stories seem to be working at cross-purposes — high-concept loglines might be easier to sell in a 30-second ad, but that doesn't mean they make better movies."
Cool thought, but since when have American movie audiences shied away from formulas? Aren't there, like, six Fast & Furious movies? How many times has Freddy Krueger stabbed his way into our pocketbooks? Twenty-three James Bond films have been made. How many white male super heroes CGI'd their way across screens this summer? Audiences love the shit out of formulaic predictablility; in fact, I consume popcorn fare specifically because I don't want to be challenged; I want self-actualization montages set to soul music. I want impossible-to-afford outfits worn by women who are somehow only 26 and high on the masthead at a magazine that's obviously supposed to be Vogue. I want pratfalls, damn it! I want to crawl inside a familiar space, lounge around in it for 90 minutes, and then leave. I want the cinematic equivalent of my childhood bedroom, where I know where stuff is and everything feels comfortable.
The "people are sick of the formula!" excuse seems even less plausible when you consider the fact that romantic comedies have the luxury of an endlessly-refreshing audience. Millions of girls turn 13 ever year. Even if people discarded film genres once they caught onto their tropes, studio execs could figure that they've got at least 3 solid years of earnest romcom viewing from most young women before they catch on to the fact that every film is the same.
Over at The Atlantic Wire, Alex Abad-Santos postulates that it's not that people are sick of the formula; it's that the formula needs updating. Thanks to the internet, he argues, the meet-cute is no longer an event that takes place in meatspace.
...these formulas are becoming increasingly obsolete. Local book stores are dwindling, meaning you can't conveniently run into someone there. Mega book stores are dying too, so falling in love with someone who's going to buy you out is probably out of the question. Prostitutes aren't found on streets anymore, they're on Craigslist which fully negates that love-at-first-sight scene from Pretty Woman.
People just don't have chance meetings with each other these days. Romantic comedies should reflect that too. In fact, the way people, including prostitutes, meet each other these days has completely changed.
While I agree with Abad-Santos that the internet is partially to blame for the romcom's struggles (and, uh, ease in procuring prostitutes), I disagree with the reasons he suggests. The internet has mounted some stiff competition, and Hollywood simply can't keep up.
Now that Tinseltown no longer has a monopoly on audience attention spans, great entertainment is being made without the aid of major studios. As a result, women have access to instant brain candy made by women (or people who understand female audiences). Gone are the days when women hankering for some light hearted fare had to roll their eyes and suffer through another holiday themed episodic hack job like Valentine's Day or New Year's Eve or Columbus Day (which isn't actually a movie yet, but can you imagine someone making a heartwarming comfort film about genocide? Wait. Pocahontas. Never mind.). Thanks to Netflix investing in series like Orange is the New Black, web series like Awkward Black Girl, and web channels like MTVOther, we've got better stuff available to use from home, and — bonus — we don't even need to change into outside pants to watch it.
The problem isn't that audiences are bored or that technology ruined everything; the problem is that there aren't enough people in Hollywood who understand why women watch romantic comedies making movies — there aren't enough women. Last year, only 18% of directors, writers, executive producers, producers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 grossing box office films were women, a 1% increase since 1998. That's fucking embarrassing. And women want to watch movies; the god-awful Twilight franchise has grossed over a billion dollars, a mostly-female audience is nerding the fuck out on The Hunger Games. Brave, Les Miserables, and Silver Linings Playbook kicked ass in the 2012 box office. There's a gigantic opportunity to snag more female viewers by simply releasing a halfway decent romcom that doesn't depict women as psychopathic brides.
But rather than involving more women to update the romcom formula and compete with better, independently-produced films and TV, studios essentially asked a bunch of dudes what they thought women wanted and then got frustrated and blamed the audience when those dudes weren't right. Hollywood is throwing up its hands and declaring the Romantic Comedy dead because Internet! OK Cupid! Millenials! Sexting! Instagram! Formulas!
Bullshit. The romantic comedy is very much alive. It just needs to be made by people who understand why the romantic comedy audience watches. Romantic comedies need to be made by ... women. And with an ever-growing class of talented and funny female comedy writers currently working in TV, maybe the next architect of the romantic comedy of Hollywood's dreams has been right in front of it this whole time. If they'd only notice.