the rise, fall and kind of rise of romantic comedies

How the rom com died on film and was reborn on TV.

by Wendy Syfret
23 February 2017, 2:35am

In 1990, a film about a sex worker navigating the stigma associated with her employment was released to universal acclaim. Today, in the age of The Girlfriend Experience and Inland Empire, that sentence is more likely to describe a quiet indie dedicated to character studies and exploring classism. Almost 30 years ago however, it was the subject of the decade's first major romantic comedy hit, and would go on to be the fourth-highest-grossing film of the year. We are of course talking about Pretty Woman, now a beloved, if not problematic, classic movie and a testament to our once unquenchable desire for romantic comedies.

Across the 90s and into the early 2000s rom-coms routinely served as the industry's most consistent earners. We flocked to them, and they regularly breezily cracked $100 million in ticket sales. But since 2016 no romantic comedy has mirrored Pretty Woman's success. While we continue to celebrate and spend money on laughs at the movies, our interest in a simple love story has waned. So what happened? How did a whole genre disintegrate in a decade?

It's impossible to dissect our attitudes towards romantic comedies without examining our attitude towards women. These films have, after all, long been dismissively referred to as "chick flicks" and primarily marketed to female audiences. At the end of the last century, it was widely assumed that all it took to draw us in was a meet-cute, a bit of drama and a make up scene — preferably on a bridge, fire-escape, roof or some other health and safety hazard.

But in the years since, the power of the female consumer has been realised. According to MPAA Theatrical Market Statistics women have made up a larger share of moviegoers (defined as "people who went to a movie at the cinema at least once in the year") consistently since 2010. In addition to the data, the unexpected and colossal success of films like Bridesmaids and Trainwreck proved beyond a doubt that when you treat this valuable audience as a collective of multidimensional beings, it really pays off. With more cash came more real attention to what women actually want to see on screen, and as a result the products sold to them have evolved.

The power of the female consumer has been realised.

That's not to say us independent career girls don't care about love though. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Michael Sucsy the writer, director and producer behind 2012 romantic drama The Vow reflected, "Audiences aren't tired of romance; they're tiring of formulas...There is still a demand, and there always will be, for fresh and innovative stories that are smart and nuanced." His observation is supported by looking at the comedies that have been added to the zeitgeist in recent years. They all contain ribbons of romance, it's just presented as something more complex than a happily ever after.

Rather than focusing on falling in love, more recent hits like This is 40, The To Do List and Crazy Stupid Love are interested in unpacking the nuances of sex or the long term challenges of marriage. Writers and producers have realised that imperfect relationships are more relatable than fantasy. Viewers are more likely to watch and rewatch their own messy, but deeply interesting lives, reflected back to them than wallow in a dream.

An extension of this can be seen in our expansion of what we mean when we talk about love in the movies. Romantic comedies are often placed as natural opposites to the bromances that bloomed in the last decade; as if Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen's efforts to teach men to tell their friends they loved them were somehow different to Harry and Sally facing up to their feelings. Comedies focused on pals learning to appreciate each other are in reality an evolution of the rom-coms that had begun to feel reductive.

Rather than focusing on falling in love, more recent hits are interested in unpacking the nuances of sex or the long term challenges of marriage.

Perhaps in response to the aforementioned reassessment of the power of the female audience, bromances have also been joined by explorations of female friendships. When April Prosser's screenplay The One That Got Away found its way onto The Black List in 2012 — the annual roundup of Hollywood's best unproduced screenplays — it was met with initial interest. But as she explained to LA Weekly, it wasn't in line with the shifting tides. "When I went out with this script last November, it just opened every door for me," she said. "But every studio exec I was meeting with said, 'We love this script, it's one of our favorite romantic comedies, but we're not making romantic comedies right now. What we are buying is the female buddy comedy." The success of Ghostbusters, Bad Moms and The Heat speak to the value in swapping out a tall, dark and handsome stranger for a pack of emotionally stable and highly valued pals.

All this isn't to say we're totally over a good love story, it's just that we're not turning to the movies in search of them anymore. After all, the expectations we've explored so far — that we expect love to be explored as a tender, combustible and sometimes ugly emotion — are hard to metabolise in under two hours. Rather the rise of prestige television, supported by cable networks and streaming services with more money and freedom have provided fertile soil to grow a new generation of romantic comedies.

Shows like Master of None, Catastrophe, Love, You're The Worst and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend use their additional hours to serve our increasingly nuanced needs. With hours and seasons at their disposal they can present realistic and fully realised characters and situations which more elegantly serve our increasingly refined tastes. It's hard to imagine a 90s rom com ending with the protagonist leaving his will-they-won't-they girlfriend behind to go learn how to make pasta in Italy. But after 10 episodes of watching Dev try and be the man both he and Rachel needs, his decision to choose personal exploration over a make up kiss in the rain feels not only realistic, but deeply satisfying. Similarly three seasons of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKennahel's musical oddball experiment Crazy Ex-Girlfriend allowed them to totally pull apart and reassemble the stereotype of a heartbroken former flame who can't let go. Given the traditional romantic comedy treatment Bloom's Rebecca Bunch would be an annoying side character or a deeply frustrating lead. Here she's a conduite for all kinds of heartbreak, anxieties and hopes that have never really been fully fleshed out on screen.

We may lament the loss of a romantic film heritage because no one really emerged to replace Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts as fast-talking love sick comedy queens, but if we step back we see it's not gone, it just grew up. Hey true love isn't dead. It's just messy as hell and waiting in your Netflix queue. 


Text Wendy Syfret
Image by Ben Thomson

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romantic comedies