The Death of the Traditional Rom-Com is Probably a Great Thing

By  · Published on September 26th, 2013

The most recent “X is dead” proclamation comes from The Hollywood Reporter in the form of an obituary for the Hollywood romantic comedy. It’s cause of death, of course, is a lust for an international market and high concepts that play there, but while the article from Tatiana Siegel initially frames the loss with a black veil (the title proclaims that Harry wouldn’t meet Sally in 2013), the reality of the situation isn’t a cause for dirges. Instead, it’s an opportunity for innovation that deserves a marching band.

At least two of the filmmakers interviewed said as much. First, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World producer Joy Gorman:

“The meet-cute is dead. The only ones that have a chance are ones with a very fresh take.”

So the ones that abide strictly to a tired checklist don’t have a shot? Excellent. Second, there’s The Vow director Michael Sucsy:

“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.”

Even as caped heroes take over the entire world, there’s still hope for Harry and Sally.

Which was an ironic choice for the headline here because Rob Reiner’s Oscar-nominated classic was a fresh idea back in 1989. The problem is that so many producers and writers decided they would have what Sally was having, creating a formula throughout the 1990s that involved meet-cutes, misunderstandings and a contractual obligation to cast Meg Ryan. In short, it was co-opted, and with all great ideas that get copied, the returns were going to diminish. For a while the familiarity was comforting. Then it got clingy.

Some of the rom-coms of the past 20 years are excellent movies, but seeing that particular version of the genre go isn’t such a sad occasion at all.

If it really is the end for this brand of rom-com, it’s fitting that movies like Valentine’s Day – where the formula was attempted a dozen times in a single movie – will represent the loud death rattle. A moment in time where studios threw an Expendables amount of mushy celebrity names at the wall in the hopes that any of them would stick. And they did. The movie was a financial success (garnering 50% of its take from international box offices in the process).

But while behemoths like that were exposing a kind of desperation, the indie and studio-offshoot world were picking up the slack with 500 Days of Summer, Silver Linings Playbook, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Love and Other Drugs, Juno, and dozens of other movies that played around with the idea of mixing love and laughter.

Back to the demise, the problems leading to the death of the genre that Siegel notes can also be seen as good news:

  1. Actress like Drew Barrymore and Reese Witherspoon are moving away from the genre to do other work…which is great because I’d rather see more performances like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (or, hell, even stupid fun like Charlie’s Angels) and Mud than the 50th version of 50 First Dates with a new title.
  2. Actresses like Emma Stone and Amy Adams are declining rom-com roles…which is great because I’d rather see more movies like Easy A, Sunshine Cleaning and The Fighter instead of Failure to Launch 2 starring Amy Adams and Channing Tatum.
  3. The same goes for any argument about actors. Are we really missing out on another rom-com from Matthew McConaughey when we’re getting stuff like Mud and Dallas Buyers Club?
  4. “The decreasing appeal of young movie stars is translating into less demand for romantic pairings built around their star power,”… which is great because movies should be built on strong stories and not what pretty faces are on the poster. It also means that newer talent that doesn’t require a high-dollar salary can find their way into productions.

The problem is that the studio system isn’t where you turn to for innovation.

Which is totally fine, because there are hundreds of non-studio movies released every year, and we’re getting more and more access to them through VOD and streaming networks. The problem is that the most popular indie rom-coms have led to a quirky formula of their own that’s more dangerous than the corporate model. When the indie world gets stagnant, it’s really time to call an old priest and a young priest.

Naturally all of this is indicative of the larger problem that studios have regarding almost anything without a spandex suit or name-recognition. The rom-com that descended from When Harry Met Sally is another victim of mid-range budget movies (like the City Slickers-style family comedy and Witness-style adult drama) fading out of favor with the marketing team and execs.

So I’m not worried about romantic comedies in the slightest. As usual when studios get too singularly focused, the indie world will provide, talent will rise and then eventually be co-opted by the Hollywood system. Going by The Shop Around the Corner (which was remade into the of-course-Meg-Ryan-is-starring You’ve Got Mail), the genre is 70 years old. Looking at It Happened One Night, it’s 80, and considering City Lights (which might be a stretch), it’s 90.

Like other genres, its popularity has ebbed and flowed, so it’s easy to imagine celebrating a century of rom-coms with a robust crop in ten years. And like most things considered “dead,” it’s really only lying dormant in a studio lot corner while truly thriving if you know where to look.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.