If the cinematic love story is dead, rom-coms should get a new venue.
"Harry Wouldn't Meet Sally in 2013," reports the October 4th edition of THR. According to the magazine's website, rom coms in cinema are over– even Nancy Meyers, Michael H. Weber, and Scott Neustadter, the director and writers behind, variously, What Women Want, Something's Gotta Give, and 500 Days of Summer, couldn't get their movies greenlit this past year. For example, recent release What To Expect When You're Expecting featured Cameron Diaz and a familiar title but it only had a $1 million profit in domestic sales.
The demise of dialogue-driven scripts in Hollywood is well documented. There are a couple of reasons cinema no longer goes for prolixity. First of all, cinema is international these days, and language barriers, even when a film is dubbed, can seriously diminish a movie's international earning potential. International markets (excluding India and China, whose movie consumption is mostly domestic) account for about 2 billion tickets annually. As of 2002 that was 20% higher than the number of tickets sold in the United States. That means that just under half of Hollywood's ticket-based revenue comes from outside America. You can count on good old Roger Ebert to tell it to you straight:
Complicating the situation is the increasing reliance by Hollywood on foreign markets, which are thought to be impatient with dialogue and hungry for action. That results in an irony: while European nations, for example, produce excellent films that play here in art theaters, we are represented over there by American films suggesting we are a nation of violent or moronic fanboys.
I specify "ticket based revenue" because our most successful movies make most of their money back outside the box office. Blockbusters have become extended commercials for merchandise and other movie-affiliated products, like cereal box endorsements and theme park integration. For example, Pixar's Cars made a paltry $461 million in box office revenue but racked up $8 billion in sales of global merchandise between 2006 (its release) and 2011. It behooves Hollywood's wallet to develop franchises with recognizable, saleable characters and a straightforward title that will work well with a number at the end. In other words, no Annie Hall 2 or ancillary Diane Keaton action figures– it just doesn't work.
So enfranchisement encourages flashiness, as does globalization. But a third factor — one increasingly important in this new medium's "golden age" — is the rise of television. As any film historian could tell you, the small screen has bifurcated taste: spectacles are more popular than ever (thanks, Pacific Rim), but viewers are turning out (or in) en masse for tense, episodic narratives like Breaking Bad, too. Cassevetes-inflected scripts that might once have belonged to "New Hollywood" are instead pitched to AMC and HBO. Michael J. Fox is on NBC. Steven Soderbergh is taking home Emmys. TV these days has "the kind of bigscreen cachet…that makes academy members weak in the knees."
Rom coms should adapt to the changing times. They're already high in dialogue and low in spectacle– a good fit for TV. Detractors of the form are quick to proclaim it overly formulaic and sold out, the latest example being 40 Days of Dating, the redundant movie adaptation from the blog that "made you hate love." 40 Days of Dating is a great example of what's wrong with rom coms in Hollywood. They're done to death and they're formulaic, as Gawker noted with its typically gleeful vitriol. But maybe even more importantly, rom coms and movies aren't the most natural fit, in part because love on the big screen is constrained to 90 minutes. An Annie Hall — a movie that can make you fall in and out of love with economy — is exceedingly rare.
A great television show might get the job done better, giving audiences enough time to get to know a protagonist and his or her romantic aspirations. Audiences already sense that rom coms are best watched at home: that's why marathoning Nora Ephron flicks in your pajamas is a well-deserved cliche. Moreover, since many of us are tired of angry male antiheroes, a less cynical (female?) antihero might be just what the doctor ordered. Less violence, more sex (and first dates), please.
TV has already dipped its toe in the water with sitcoms like New Girl and The Mindy Project. But sitcoms tend toward formula and fuck-it-all improvisation — the very blights rom coms must escape. A better model for the next When Harry Met Sally would be the quality TV drama, with its tight plot lines, multi-season arcs, and dangerously gleaming dialogue. Not Ross and Rachel are hooking up…again… and more The Graduate, with the wedding as season premiere and the bus escape as series finale.
Love is a lifelong pursuit: don't romantic comedies deserve at least a couple of seasons?
Follow Johannah on Twitter @jjjjjjjjohannah