This week is the 25th anniversary of the release of When Harry Met Sally. Iconic and brilliant, it’s one of the best rom-coms ever made. It’s inspired me to take a look at the rom-com.

There’s been much talk in the trades about the death of the romantic comedy. Are they right?

The big picture looks far from rosy. In Vulture’s excellent “Can The Romantic Comedy Be Saved?” Claude Brodesser-Akner makes the point of how year after year, the box office for rom-coms has been declining.

“In 2002, the top five highest-grossing romantic comedies alone — My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Sweet Home Alabama, Maid in Manhattan, and Two Weeks Notice — collectively took in a whopping $555 million in domestic box office.

There were seven rom-coms in the top 100 films of that year, and this septet averaged a $96 million take. In 2008, there were eleven rom-coms in the top 100, with an average domestic gross of $77 million.

By 2010, there were fourteen rom-coms in the top 100 highest grossing films — but their average domestic gross had dropped to $53 million.

This year [2012] the average gross in the top 100 is up a hair to $54 million, but that’s based on only four movies that have cracked that list.”

If you take a look at the top 100 grossing films worldwide on Box Office Mojo for 2013, that downward trend continues. There are no traditional rom-coms to be found and only three films within kissing distance of the genre.

Warm Bodies, a zom rom-com, comes in at 62, making $117 million worldwide. About Time, more a straight romance from Richard Curtis is at 77, bringing in $87 million and The Best Man Holiday, which has some romantic elements rounds us out at 87, taking $71 million, mostly domestic US.

Looking at the UK, the top 100 grossing films of 2013 paint the same picture. Warm Bodies and About Time crop up again and I Give It A Year makes it in at 53, taking £5.8 million.

From a studio perspective, rom-coms have become less attractive. Those numbers don’t look good and the string of flops – How Do You Know, The Five-Year Engagement, What To Expect When You’re Expecting and The Big Wedding – doesn’t help matters.

When it comes to picking projects, you can’t build a franchise on a love story and they’re a tough sell for the international market. Rom-coms, like drama, are dialogue based and harder to translate to worldwide gross, when local romances might play better to audiences.

Despite the numbers, I’d argue that the rom-com isn’t dead. It’s evolving. It’s not that audiences aren’t interested in love stories. It’s more they’re checking out on facile formulaic froth of the meet-cute, date, obstacle, happily ever after.

Cinematic romances like The Fault In Our Stars, currently at worldwide gross of $237 million, show there’s still an appetite for a boy meets girl story. Silver Linings Playbook is ostensibly a rom-com. Crazy Stupid Love took $142 million worldwide.

There’s also Don Jon, one of many smart films deconstructing the genre, Nicole Holofcener’s lovely Enough Said, Before Midnight, Drinking Buddies and so on. These don’t have the box office numbers to match the above, but they’re indicative of a trend of modern love stories.

We need smart storytelling rooted in relatable characters and strong narratives. The classic rom-coms like Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, Groundhog Day, Four Weddings And A Funeral and About A Boy are all held up by fantastic writing.

The Fault In Our Stars was written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, the team behind 500 Days Of Summer and The Spectacular Now. David O. Russell is a stunning writer/director. I’m fascinated to see what Burr Steers does with his script for Pride, Prejudice And Zombies. Dan Fogelman who wrote Crazy Stupid Love also wrote Cars for Pixar and Tangled. I’m unsurprised their films won hearts around the world.

With rom-coms, the script is everything. It’s all about the story and characters. You can’t distract your audience with explosions and scares.

The challenge for writers is finding stories that resonate for our time and reflect our experiences. The traditional obstacles for rom-coms like parental approval, class and even distance have become irrelevant. I think we’re also more cynical as audiences. We don’t buy the fairy tale of the one and the happily ever after. Real life and romance is messy. What are the modern obstacles and challenges to love? How do we overcome them? Enough Said did this beautifully. Maybe we don’t always need a happy ending.

Cast, as always with distribution, is crucial but you also need chemistry and comedic timing.

Even if you have a fantastic story, you won’t get theatrical distribution without commercial cast. Unfortunately for rom-coms, that also holds true for TV broadcast, DVD distribution and even some VOD platforms, which expect a theatrical release.

Rom-coms aren’t a genre like horror or action, where audiences take a chance on films with unknown cast. Your production costs might be low, but you need names and quality to get noticed. As the studios learnt, you can’t just throw Drew Barrymore, Kate Hudson or Rachel McAdams at a film and hope it sticks.

For indies, with good production values and cast, you might be able to crack some TV channel slots looking for feel good content for women, but the balance between budget and distribution returns is really tough.

It might be that the rom-com evolves to become an element of a film, one half of a genre hybrid. Knocked Up and This Is 40 are indicative towards the trend towards R rated sex comedies with some romance. Mr. and Mrs Smith was an action rom-com. Warm Bodies gave us the zom-rom-com and with Life After Beth and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it might be a genre that has legs.

Romance is on the rise. King of the rom-com Richard Curtis took a more serious turn in About Time. Pre-awareness continues to play a role with studios mining best selling books from Nicholas Sparks. Looking For Alaska, the first novel from The Fault In Our Stars author John Green, has been re-optioned with writer/director Sarah Polley attached.

Rom-coms might become more specialised to appeal to certain demographics, instead of the broad bland stories or ensemble rom-coms that scuppered the studios. Going for older audiences like Enough Said or BAME audiences like The Best Man Holiday and  Think Like A Man can have strong commercial appeal and allow more unique narrative voices.

But there’s still space for the traditional rom-com. What If with Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, charmed critics at Toronto and hits screens in August. Comparisons to When Harry Met Sally abound.

Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.

Picture Credit: 500 Days Of Summer

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