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R.I.P. Romantic Comedies: Why Harry Wouldn't Meet Sally in 2013

Rom Com Illustration - H 2013
Illustration by: Iker Ayestaran

One producer tells THR "the meet-cute is dead" as films with overseas and sequel potential take priority and the traditional format tanks.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

To understand the state of the Hollywood romantic comedy, consider director Nancy Meyers. Despite her stellar credentials in the genre (What Women Want, Something's Gotta Give and It's Complicated), THR.com reported Sept. 20 that her attempt to make a royal wedding rom-com at Sony had ended. Even with a script by red-hot (500) Days of Summer writers Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, Meyers couldn't settle on the right cast. And sources say Sony, like many studios, was having doubts about laying a big bet in the budget range to which Meyers is accustomed.

"I don't see any appetite for rom-coms from the studios," says producer Lynda Obst, who built her career with such hits as Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle and the Kate Hudson-Matthew McConaughey pairing How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. "The meet-cute is dead," agrees Seeking a Friend for the End of the World producer and manager Joy Gorman. "The only ones that have a chance are ones with a very fresh take."

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Romantic comedies remain cost-effective and potentially high-reward if they work. But gone are the days when light comedic pairings like When Harry Met Sally or 50 First Dates reliably packed multiplexes. As studios increasingly focus on films that can be sequelized and play in overseas markets, the one-off, dialogue-dependent rom-coms are a difficult sell. In addition, the decreasing appeal of young movie stars is translating into less demand for romantic pairings built around their star power.

Consider recent box-office disappointments like Universal's The Five-Year Engagement and Lionsgate's The Big Wedding and What to Expect When You're Expecting. Big Wedding cost $35 million but took in $22 million, all of it domestic. Engagement had a $30 million price tag and a $29 million haul. And What to Expect featured such rom-com stars as Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez and a widely recognizable book title but could muster only $41 million domestic with a $40 million budget.

As the genre loses heat, actresses are scrambling to move outside the sphere. Drew Barrymore, who is no longer seen as a sure bet for studios in a romantic comedy, hasn't appeared in one since 2010's Going the Distance -- which earned just $18 million despite its $32 million budget (though she recently shot Warner Bros.' The Familymoon opposite Adam Sandler).

Diaz has moved on to the edgier R-rated raunch comedy genre, hoping to repeat the success of Bad Teacher with the upcoming Sex Tape. Reese Witherspoon has been focusing on dramas like Mud and Devil's Knot. Though Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams and Anne Hathaway are courted for rom-coms, they largely are eschewing them.

Even Obst has turned her attention from the genre to sci-fi (she's producing Christopher Nolan's time-travel tentpole Interstellar). "I will see a wisp of a window open at a studio like Paramount," she says of the opportunity to make a rom-com, "and then it's like they filled their one slot for the year."

Those slots more often than not are now taken by pure romance stories like The Vow or raunchy R-rated comedies like Bridesmaids. The rom-coms that do hit theaters typically are postmodern couplings like Silver Linings Playbook, which bowed in 2012 and grossed $236 million worldwide. Warner Bros. recently beat rivals for rights to Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman's 40 Days of Dating blog about friends who seek romance with all of the precision of following The South Beach Diet. Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend) will adapt the script, and Vow's Michael Sucsy will direct.

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"Audiences aren't tired of romance; they're tiring of formulas," Sucsy says. "There is still a demand, and there always will be, for fresh and innovative stories that are smart and nuanced." The trouble, he says, "has arisen from the fact that easy marketing and original stories seem to be working at cross-purposes -- high-concept loglines might be easier to sell in a 30-second ad, but that doesn't mean they make better movies."

Despite the relatively low cost of rom-coms, some believe it will take further budget reductions to prompt a resurgence.

"It's unfortunate because if you look at the numbers, romantic comedies have been one of the most reliable genres for its price point over the past 30 years," says Obst. "But a reinvention has to be done. They have to be made for a price -- $15 million to $20 million as opposed to the old $30 million to $40 million."

E-mail: Tatiana.Siegel@THR.com
Twitter: @TatianaSiegel27