“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary” — the pinnacles of the romantic comedy (colloquially known as the rom-com): boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins her back.
It’s a genre that defined generations and catapulted the careers of A-list stars like Julia Roberts, Matthew McConaughey, and Hugh Grant, among many others.
But now? It’s hardly ever seen — at least not on the big screen.
“The rom-com has taken a bit of a backseat, over the past four or five years especially, partly due to the fact that other genres have come to the forefront,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro, told Yahoo Finance.
He explained how franchise superhero films have begun to “encroach” on every type of genre, especially comedy as Marvel films tend to have a significant amount of comedic relief.
As a result, the rom-com has essentially “faded away” with audiences “expecting more.”
“It got to a point where there was a template being followed more often than not,” Robbins stated.
Comscore Senior Media Analyst Paul Dergarabedian agreed, adding, “Audiences have come to expect a much higher level of quality with movies that have that comedy or romance element.”
“It’s definitely a genre that’s taken a big hit,” he continued.
Dergarabedian went on to reference musicals as another genre that’s slowed down the past few years with Disney’s “West Side Story” (DIS) failing to impress at the box office. The musical adaption earned just $10.6 million in its domestic opening weekend, despite strong reviews and a top director, Steven Spielberg.
“For now, we’re going to be living in a world where you have mainly the big blockbusters, franchise films, superhero films being the bread and butter of the industry,” the analyst surmised.
According to box office analytics platform EntTelligence, the rom-com never drew the same audience as superhero or action films — even in its heyday.
“When Harry Met Sally,” which debuted in 1989, still ranked 11th in attendance that year with approximately 19.5 million moviegoers.
The Meg Ryan-led film followed behind franchise favorites like Tim Burton’s “Batman” (52 million), “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (42.3 million), “Lethal Weapon 2” (30.8), “Ghostbusters II” (23.5 million), “Back to the Future Part II” (19.6 million), among others.
All in, “When Harry Met Sally” represented 7.6% of the attendance for the top films in 1989.
I don’t think the rom-com dead, but I think it’s been dormant…Shawn Robbins, Box Office Pro Chief Analyst
Still, Robbins said it’s “possible for everything to coexist,” explaining that “a variety of content is just as important to support the overall market as those bigger audience movies.”
To that point, not all is lost for the beloved romantic comedy, which has seen some sporadic wins.
“Crazy Rich Asians,” which opened in 2018 above box office estimates at $26.5 million before going on to secure nearly $175 million domestically, is one modern rom-com success story.
Robbins called out the film’s cultural appeal, saying it “offered something new and diverse for an underserved audience. Examples like that show the desire for a resurgent romantic comedy era.”
More recently, industry analysts categorized Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum’s “The Lost City” as a successful romantic comedy; however, that film was largely marketed as a comedic action flick — something that Robbins thinks was strategic given the audience landscape.
“I suspect one reason that film was marketed the way that it was is due to its timing — opening during or at the tail end of the pandemic with studios seeing mostly male audiences driving the return of the business.”
He added that studios wanted to ensure “a selling point for everybody” — just in case female audiences chose not to come out.
Additionally, when monitoring trailers that are being marketed to the moviegoer, only a mere 4% are for films categorized as ‘romance/drama,’ EntTelligence data found.
In other words, marketing spends seem to correlate to the titles moviegoers are most frequenting (i.e. male-centric, action films.)
So far this year, movies that opened more than $20 million domestically saw audiences of roughly 59% male, according to Comscore data. That includes super hero titles like “The Batman” and “Morbius” — with the latter seeing an opening-weekend audience that was 60% male (with nearly half under the age of 25.)
Yet, “The Lost City” saw a mostly female-led audience (thanks to the powerhouse duo of Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum) — another sign that perhaps the rom-com could see a resurgence down the line, especially as pandemic-era trends dissipate.
Of all new openings since January (excluding “Spider-Man: No Way Home” which debuted in December 2021), “The Lost City” represents 6.1% of overall movie theater attendance — roughly on par with “When Harry Met Sally’s” 1989 performance, EntTelligence data notes.
Box Office Pro’s Robbins explained that “The Lost City” could be a turning point for more female-driven films, but that it will “take a little bit of time for Hollywood’s pipeline to catch up.”
Streamers look to claim the rom-com genre
With the explosion of streaming services from Netflix (NFLX) and Disney+ to Amazon Prime Video (AMZN) and HBO Max (T), the rom-coms of our past may never make their way back to theaters.
Netflix, which has seen major successes with romantic-focused films like “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “Love Hard,” and “He’s All That,” has, in some ways, claimed the genre as its own.
“There’s so many [rom-coms] available on the small screen,” Comscore’s Dergarabedian told Yahoo Finance.
“Many people are just gravitating towards the small screen to get their rom-com or comedy fix, and it’s been tougher for those movies in theaters — even pre-pandemic,” he continued.
Robbins added that “streaming offers an interesting avenue for any studios that want to produce those types of films, especially those that want to experiment with the genre and break away from the typical ‘rom-com formula.'”
“That’s what it’s going to take for any genre to evolve and find different, new audiences,” he surmised.
Overall, despite its challenges, Robbins is confident that the rom-com will one day return — similar to the horror genre which, after going through a bit of a lull in the early ’90s, is now back in full force thanks to films like “Get Out” and “A Quiet Place.”
“I don’t think the rom-com is dead, but I think it’s been dormant. It’s time will come again.”
“Everything makes a rebound,” he said.
Alexandra is a Senior Entertainment and Food Reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @alliecanal8193