REJECTING THE FORMULA: THE ROM-COM RENAISSANCE
The Romantic Comedy genre is a personal favorite of mine. But, in these formative years of my career, I’ve found the industry to be lacking in that area. I know, action movies are big blockbuster hits worldwide. That’s where the money is. But honestly, we’ve seen Netflix is becoming successful at bringing the Rom-Com back, and television changed the mold. Maybe our expectations as audiences are changing, but maybe it’s also time to revisit the formula instead of getting rid of the genre altogether in Hollywood.
I’m not saying we really need a fourth Tom Hanks & Meg Ryan Rom-Com (although, I wouldn’t complain). But that feel-good combination between romance and comedy is definitely drowned out by the flood of action and animation films we’ve been seeing recently.
This is my call to action to Hollywood to bring back my favorite genre in a refreshing and smart way. But please know that I would never blindly ask for something. There are numbers and other data that prove the Rom-Com can, is, and will continue to make a resurgence in a more modern way.
ADVENTURE, ACTION & ANIMATION MOVIES DOMINATE THE BOX OFFICES.
We already know that action, adventure & animation films consistently have higher earnings both nationwide and on a global scale. The big studios want to make content that is going to reach a global audience, and action/adventure movies don’t necessarily have a language or culture barrier.
From here I wanted to look at where Romantic Comedies fall among the rest of the genres. It's difficult to look at them specifically in some cases because oftentimes these films can be broken into either subgenre. More often than not there is no distinction, which is honestly a little bit hurtful. But thankfully, a website called The Numbers made the large task of collecting the genre’s earnings and market data a bit easier. As far as critical acclaim and audience feedback, I had to go in and get that information myself from sources like Rotten Tomatoes and trade publications/sources like IMDb.
THE GENRE'S MARKET SHARE DIMINISHES HOPE A BIT.
We can see that in 2007 there was a peak for the genre, but that Romantic Comedies usually only make up under 10% of the movie industry annually. And although this doesn’t give me hope, we might not always love the facts that the data tells us. I decided to dive a little deeper into the Romantic Comedy's history.
GENRE EARNINGS VS MARKET SHARE PER YEAR
At the genre's peak in 2007, Romantic Comedies made over $730 million while still making up less than 10% of the entire market. But when you look at the numbers for the top 100 grossing films across all genres, you see the impact that the Romantic Comedy genre actually had at this peak.
The statistics above from the Romantic Comedy's height show that finding success for the genre on the big screen is in some way possible. Now audiences are watching in more ways than one, so it might be harder to gauge. But with this spark of optimism, we can focus on how to bring that back.
WHO CONTROLS THE MARKET?
In 2017, there were a total of ZERO Romantic Comedies released by the major studios. The Big Sick, an indie film distributed by Amazon Studios was the only Romantic Comedy feature film across all highest-grossing and fan-favorite lists to be released that year. Granted, it was a good one. But the fact that NONE of the major studios were even entertaining it any longer seriously says something.
So to see if the studios were making as much of a mark on Rom-Com history as we thought, I compiled a list after doing some research to find the top fan-favorite Romantic Comedies. I created this list from well-known websites like Rotten Tomatoes, Vogue, Indie Wire, Vanity Fair, Thrillist, IMDb, and Rolling Stone. From these lists, I found the top 50 that came across more than 3 of those. A representative sample, if you will.
Over the years, we can see numbers that aren’t surprising. It’s a simple equation: big studios make big, blockbuster films which equals the big bucks. 20th Century Fox, Sony, Paramount, Columbia, Walt Disney, Warner Bros, and Universal just to name a few. But it’s interesting to see how many of those highest-grossing actually become fan favorites on a wide scale. From the graphic above you can see that the representative sample of the top audience favorite films often exceeds the number of films that made it onto the top-grossing list.
SO EVEN IF THESE FILMS AREN’T MONEY MAKERS, THEY’RE STILL RESONATING WITH AUDIENCES AND WILL STILL MAKE MONEY ELSEWHERE.
From looking at the data I collected, I was surprised to see that only 17 of the top-grossing Romantic Comedies fell into the audience/critic top 50 lists. Most of the films on those top 50 lists were created between 1989 and the early 2000’s and did not make as much money as the big hits. Below we can see that during that period of time, audiences had a lot better things to say about the films than critics did. And maybe that’s because they weren’t the blockbuster, moneymaker films that the genre used to have.
CRITIC VS AUDIENCE SCORES
In the early 2000’s, we can see a huge dip in the critic ratings for these movies, with a resurgence in the late 20-teens. But even considering that dip, audiences never really fell far below that 50% mark.
Around 2013, we can see a spike in the critic reviews from the low point the mid-2000s gave us. During this time, New Girl’s Nick and Jess were back together in their will they/won’t they relationship and The Mindy Project was mid-season 1.
The general upward trend to around 2018 found itself at a high mark for both critics and audiences. This came around the time when Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I Loved Before were released in the same month.
Those shows and films mentioned above all helped change the course of the genre away from the formulaic screenplay that resulted in the same story told with a different setting. And that shows us that television, indie films, and smaller studios could be the cultivators in keeping the genre alive.
WHILE NETFLIX’S OPTIMISM PAYS OFF, SHOULD THEY GET ALL THE CREDIT?
The problem with Netflix is there is no way to really see how many people are watching this content. We cannot compare it to revenue made from theatrical releases, and we do not have access to viewership numbers. The best way for me to show you the success is through audience and critic reviews. It might not be enough, but it’s something.
NETFLIX ORIGINALS: ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORES
All of the Netflix Original Romantic Comedies made in the past 3 years have gotten really great critic reviews. This is something that we haven’t seen a lot lately with Romantic Comedies out in theatres. Only 3 of them scored under 50% (The Kissing Booth, When We First Met, Like Father). Compared to the top 100 theatrical releases for the genre, these stats are showing significant critic approval.
But Netflix’s success with the genre was not done all on its own.
TELEVISION REJECTED THE FORMULA FIRST.
Business Insider makes the point that “Without ambitious shows that subverted the formulaic genre while embracing it, Romantic Comedies like The Big Sick, Crazy Rich Asians, and the Netflix originals wouldn't be here.”
The Golden Age of TV brought on the opportunities for Romantic Comedies to take a new form. Shows like New Girl and The Mindy Project that started around 2011 had similar conventions to the genre, but allowed audiences to see these relationships over a larger time span – seasons and years. These shows helped push the boundaries of the modern woman, and the modern relationship. It wasn’t just a narrative about a girl falling in love or having to make a decision to seemingly have it all. These stories got into the nitty-gritty parts of us. The parts that we can actually relate to. No more “maybe he’s not calling because he fell off his bike and got rushed to the hospital and they lost his phone on the way there.” The stories are refreshing and relatable, and it makes all the difference.
TV ROM-COM: ROTTEN TOMATO SCORES
These scores tell us that critics are liking what they’re seeing. Shows like New Girl, The Mindy Project lasted over 5 seasons. When The Mindy Project wasn’t picked up for another season on Fox, Hulu took it over, where it thrived and audiences cherished it more than they did when it was on the network. It seems as though that the audience is there, but the major networks haven’t fully trusted it yet. But success with series on FX, the CW, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu shows that maybe the television format works best for the genre’s revival. But it is not solely a matter of platform or running time, it’s also about the content itself.
In an article from i-D, Michael Sucsy, the man behind The Vow, stated that "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." The article touches upon how newer romantic comedies are focusing on the more complex issues.
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.
-Wendy Syfret, i-D
The reasons and ways we fall in love are so different and unique that we cannot all relate to a stereotype, but the realities of sex and long-term success in a relationship are much more universal and interesting to us. These are things we can find within ourselves and our own experiences and reflect in a way that we can laugh about them.
It is also a matter of diversity. Having stories that reflect these experiences for different kinds of people. If you look back at the highest-grossing and most popular romantic comedy movies, you can see a majority of the main characters are white with heterosexual relationships. Being able to see people of different ethnicities and what their cultures bring to the stories could be a huge turning point, and it already is with hits like Crazy Rich Asians and others like it.
But diversity is not just about ethnicity. It’s also very common for economic class to be a foreseeable hurdle in romantic comedies. But sexual orientation, language, and ability also are important factors in relationships that are often overlooked when telling stories like these.
Very much like your continued interest in your own, or a close friend’s, long-term relationship over just another short-term fling, these stories are oftentimes much more satisfying in an episodic form than the surface level story you get in 90 minutes. But that’s because the time frame allows us to get into those not so pretty situations - the other parts of life and relationships that make us human.
This smaller screen for Romantic Comedies helped push the genre out of that formulaic hole it was in. And that’s why Netflix and other indie films are doing so well. They aren’t following the same tropes and formulas for a story with their heads down.
I mean, let’s admit, we still all love a good meet-cute happenstance. So this all doesn’t mean that we can’t fool around with those calculated tropes or write in that scene where they just happen to bump into each other in the book store where they met. But it means making those the minute details appear in a more complex and modern story.
I CAN CONFIDENTLY SAY THAT THE ROM-COM RENAISSANCE IS HERE.
I think we have a little bit of hope. Relationships are complex, and Hollywood is starting to reflect that. Television might win this one at the end, which is not a bad thing in the slightest because we get to see more of a story. But Hollywood should stop sleeping on the Rom-Com because Netflix is releasing them one by one, capturing audiences and keeping them away from the theatres. Even critics are rating them highly and since Netflix doesn’t report their viewership numbers, we can only tell audience ratings from the Internet Buzz they create. This is something to keep an eye on and shows the Romantic Comedy isn’t dead: it was just taking some time to grow.
Going forward, a fiasco like No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits will be no more. To anyone in Hollywood willing to listen: Keep your mind open. Invest in some good Romantic Comedies.