Rom-Coms are not in a good place right now, as lamented by The Atlantic and our very own Tracy Moore. The chart above–based on figures from Box Office Mojo–shows just how badly the genre has tanked, as inflation-adjusted domestic ticket receipts (left axis) have plummeted despite a huge number of releases (line thickness). At the same time, traditionally male-oriented Superhero movies have seen a meteoric rise. What happened?
Let's start with 1986 to 1988, the dawn of a Golden Age for Rom-Coms. Moonstruck and Working Girl were both major hits, and the genre sold $1.6 billion in tickets over three years (adjusted to 2012 dollars, as are all figures in this article). This was followed by When Harry Met Sally... (1989), Pretty Woman (1990), and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), all of which topped $170 million. In two of these films, the sole protagonist is a woman. Two more were written and/or directed by Nora Ephron. That leaves Pretty Woman, where Julia Roberts stole the fucking show. Plenty of men saw these movies–you can't win the box office by excluding an entire gender–but these films were undeniably aimed at a female audience.
In 1998, we got a taste of what was to come. Ephron's You've Got Mail earned $163 million, but got crushed by There's Something About Mary. This was not a female-targeted movie: the protagonist was Ben Stiller, it was kind of explicitly about male stalking, and the surprise cameo was Brett Favre. It made $249 million. Ticket sales would hit an all time high in the next few years–$2.6 billion in sales from 2001 to 2003, thanks in part to the out-of-nowhere success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding–but the groundwork for disaster was laid.
From 2004 to 2006, more "Rom-Coms" were released than ever before, but total receipts plummeted 40 percent. The top four hits were Hitch, 50 First Dates, The Break-Up, and Along Came Polly, respectively starring Will Smith, Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn, and Adam Sandler again Ben Stiller.* They made an average of $150 million, $99 million shy of the surprisingly well-acclaimed Mary. Studios were dipping back into the same well–why don't we try making Rom-Coms for men?–but finding there wasn't a lot of water down there to begin with.
Things might slowly be improving. 2009's The Proposal isn't a classic, but it did make $175 million with a female protagonist. Silver Linings Playbook was 2012's highest-grossing Rom-Com-like thing, and that was about as honest as you can get about sex and relationships and still earn $132 million. The vast majority of what's out there is still shitty though. There's plenty that's problematic about Superhero movies, but they know who their audience is and advertise accordingly. For Rom-Coms to become successful again, they have to go back and find the audiences that made them so successful in the first place.
*Jennifer Aniston co-starred in two of these films. Meg Ryan she ain't.
Two important caveats on this data. First, classifying movies by genre is messy and subjective. Second, Box Office Mojo doesn't claim to have a complete database of all releases since 1980 (although it describes itself as "the most comprehensive database on the Internet.") It's possible that the rise in Rom-Com releases is tied to recent data being more readily available, but the fact that less Rom-Coms seem to have been released in the last few years compared to a decade earlier is a good sign that there's a real trend here.