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25 Years After ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ Can The Rom-Com Be Saved?

25 Years After 'When Harry Met Sally,' Can The Rom-Com Be Saved?

Twenty-five years ago today on July 14, 1989, “When Harry Met Sally” went into limited release (MGM carefully platformed the film, something of a rarity for a major summer studio release even then). It became a giant hit, grossing $92 million in the U.S.—about the equivalent of double that when adjusted for inflation. Rob Reiner’s film, made from Nora Ephron’s script, and following the titular mismatched pair (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan) who set out to explore the question of whether a man and a woman can be friends without sex and/or love getting in the way (spoiler: no), left a permanent mark on pop culture, influencing countless romantic comedies that came after. But did it also break the genre?

“When Harry Met Sally” still feels positively miraculous, as close to perfect as a latter-day example of the rom-com can be (while acknowledging that yes, it’s very bourgeois, and projects a pretty narrow-minded take on NYC life, even for the 1980s). But it’s also both witty and laugh-out-loud funny, still truthful a quarter-of-a-century on, admirably timeless (many films from the same period have dated much faster) and even a touch profound in places. Everyone involved made it look easy, which is one of the reasons that few have matched it ever since. Vulture assembled a list of the 25 best romantic comedies since the film’s release earlier this year, but of their picks, or even the ones they left out, I’d probably only allow “Jerry Maguire,” “Groundhog Day,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Defending Your Life” and “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” to be spoken of in the same breath as Reiner’s picture, and the latter three are hardly as accessible or mainstream as “When Harry Met Sally.” 

That said, “When Harry Met Sally” is not the last great romantic comedy, and neither is it the last successful one. Most of the biggest movies in the genre were released after it (though few outgross the film’s adjusted take), including “Pretty Woman,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “Hitch,” “What Women Want” and “Knocked Up,” not to mention the biggest-ever film of the genre, hailing from 2002 when everyone was apparently losing their minds — “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which took $241 million in the U.S alone.

But the hits have become fewer and further between, and since “The Proposal” took $163 million five years ago, there’s only been three $100 million dollar grossers in the genre — “Valentine’s Day,” “Just Go With It” and “Silver Linings Playbook” (you could add a few more if you loosen the genre restrictions, but I’ll come to that in a bit). They’ve been joined by a few modest successes, but even those are becoming rarer: 2013’s top-grossing rom-com was “The Best Man Holiday” with $70 million, this year’s is “Think Like A Man Too” with $61 million. And the bargain racks are still stuffed with starry underperformers: “How Do You Know,” “Morning Glory,” “Love & Other Drugs,” “When In Rome,” “The Dilemma,” “Friends With Benefits,” “The Five Year Engagement,” “What To Expect When You’re Expecting,” “Blended” et al.

Indeed, one almost feels that Hollywood has stopped trying: “Blended” aside, it’s hard to think of many recent mainstream studio rom-coms, with the genre only propped up by indies like “Obvious Child” or “Begin Again” (which is performing strongly for a limited release, but note the caveat there). So what the hell happened?

Well, three things. Firstly, the general level of quality. Like I said, bona-fide classics like “When Harry Met Sally” are rare, but even then, there have been effective films in the genre, and they tend to be rewarded financially to some degree. “The Proposal” was formulaic, but at least knew how to work within that formula, and it took a huge sum as a result. “Silver Linings Playbook” gave an indie sheen to an equally familiar story, and thanks to stellar reviews and appealing leads, did nearly as well. But the mid-to-late-00s are littered with increasingly less appetizing takes on the genre, ones that attempted the “Groundhog Day”-style asshole-redeemed arc but failed miserably at it.

It’s no accident that Matthew McConaughey and Katherine Heigl, two of the stars most associated with the genre over the last decade or so, have both consciously stepped away from, and even denounced, films like “Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past” and “The Ugly Truth”–audiences simply weren’t  responding the way they did to the stars’ biggest hits, and a sort of exhaustion set in. Even titans of the genre like Cameron Crowe and James L Brooks botched things up with films like “Elizabethtown” and “How Do You Know,” and with the fresher takes restricted to the indie world, people just started to stay away in general.

Which leads to the second point — the rom-com fix can be filled elsewhere. The truest successors to “When Harry Met Sally” (aside from straight-up homages/rip-offs like upcoming Daniel Radcliffe/Zoe Kazan starrer What If, or its across-the-pond cousin Love Rosie with Sam Claflin and Lily Collins) haven’t been on the big screen, but on the small: shows like “Friends,” “Sex And The City” and in particular “How I Met Your Mother,” combined the same mix of Manhattan fairy tale, dating etiquette and will-they-won’t-they to huge success. To find a time when one show or the other wasn’t on the air (other than a year-long gap in 2004/2005), one has to go back to 1994, a time when the rom-com was still a massive box office draw thanks to the likes of “Sleepless In Seattle” and “While You Were Sleeping.”

And with theater tickets more cripplingly expensive than ever, and VOD a more and more popular option, general audiences (as Scott Tobias eloquently pointed out over at The Dissolve recently), the ones that always drove these movies, need a real reason to go the multiplex, and with the lines between TV and movies collapsing, putting down $30 bucks to go see “Five-Year Engagement” on date night, when you can catch Jason Segel on ‘HIMYM’ for free at home, doesn’t seem like the smart option versus big-budget 3D effects-driven extravaganzas that demand to be seen on a giant screen.

And  that leads towards my last point: the movie business isn’t the same as it was back in the summer of 1989 (though let’s not forget Tim Burton’s “Batman” was released that year too), or even in the pre-”Friends” era. Studios are now more and more reliant on franchises and tentpoles, that will do handsomely at home, but even better abroad (particularly in the Asian territories, with Hollywood increasingly ensuring that their movies appeal to the ever-growing Chinese market). That increasingly means that middle-budget fare, which has traditionally included the rom-com, gets frozen out, as it doesn’t have billion-dollar potential, nor will it (generally speaking) inspire sequels and merchandise.

Famously, back in 2010, Disney head Rich Ross announced that an in-development sequel to “The Proposal” (the sixth-top-grossing rom-com of all time) was being dropped in favor of pursuing more four-quadrant tentpoles. The result was “John Carter,” “Mars Needs Moms,” “The Lone Ranger” and Ross losing his job, but not much has changed, and other studios have continued along those lines. Comedies don’t generally travel well, romantic comedies included, and if you can triple or quadruple your domestic haul in foreign territories by getting robots to punch each other, why would you risk a starry rom-com that doesn’t hold much appeal abroad? Some have tried to meld the genre with action, in theory to attract young men, but films like “Knight & Day” and “This Means War” have tended to underperform.

This might make it seem that there’s little hope for the rom-com, but there’s some reason for optimism. Audiences don’t appear to have lost their appetite for romance in general: “The Vow” took $125 million a couple of years back, “The Fault In Our Stars” just made about the same, and teens queued up for “Twilight” movies—it’s just that none of those films are particularly funny. But there have been comedy hits with romantic elements too: “Bridesmaids” was huge, even if the romancing-Chris-O’Dowd sub-plot wasn’t its main priority, and what are the two ‘Jump Street’ movies if not platonic romances between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum? None of these do gangbusters numbers abroad, but studios are still lining up to make them.

People want to see romances, and people want to see comedies, it’s just that recently, they haven’t wanted to see them together. But in part, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: studios haven’t been making them, so it makes it seem that the audience doesn’t exist. But actually, look at the success of the “Think Like A Man” films: the first, in particular, vaulted well over the $50-60 million ceiling that movies targeted at African-American audiences usually hit, suggesting that a rom-com-starved general audience were turning up for it as well. And though studios remain hesitant to push the button, there are some rom-coms coming down the pipe that could well turn out to connect: the aforementioned “What If”; Kevin Hart aiming for a crossover hit with “The Wedding Ringer”; the Alison Brie-starring “How To Be Single”; Cameron Crowe’s return to the genre with Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone and Rachel McAdams; Simon Pegg and Lake Bell in “Man Up,” and the Will Smith-toplining “Focus.” 

It’s the last one that could shake things up the most. It marks Smith’s first return to the genre since “Hitch” (the third top-grossing rom-com ever), and like many A-list stars, even those like Julia Roberts who made their name with romantic comedies, he’s stayed away from them of late. Where once we had Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire,” now we have Domhnall Gleeson in “About Time” (no offense to Gleeson, who’s hugely talented, but he’s not exactly a big international draw). And overseas is where movie stars still matter more than at home.

The vast majority of American films released in China, and the other crucial Asian markets, are the big blockbusters, and it’s paid off so far. But an interesting recent report suggested that Chinese audiences might be as fed-up of what they’re getting from Hollywood as the rest of us, with moviegoers reportedly complaining of “the lack of variety in recent imported films, many of which are sequels and re-releases, and heavily driven by special effects.” Quotas on U.S. imports mean that studios are always going to focus on their biggest movies for overseas releases, but what would happen if they released “Focus,” or some return to rom-coms that Tom Cruise probably should have made years ago, or whatever, in China with the same push they give to “Transformers?”

Again, cultural differences tend to mean that comedies travel less well abroad. But that’s not true for everything. Back in the day, “Pretty Woman” took nearly twice as much internationally as it did in the U.S., for a total of nearly half-a-billion dollars (adjusted for inflation, that’s close to a billion now). And the Richard Curtis/Working Title movies buck the trend: doing pretty well in the U.S. (“Notting Hill” the top grosser at $116 million), but multiplying the return abroad: “Bridget Jones’s Diary” took $200 million outside, as did “Four Weddings And A Funeral” and “Love Actually, and even “About Time” took nearly six times its meager $15 million U.S. haul internationally.

And the studio and the writer/director might have been prescient as to how to tackle the genre. Back in 2007, they geared up to make a movie written by Curtis and his brother Jamie called “Lost For Words.” To have been directed by Susanne Bier, about a movie star (Hugh Grant) caught in a love triangle between a Chinese film director (Zhang Ziyi) and the translator who acts as a go-between, the film ended up back in development hell when Grant left the project only weeks before it was due to film, and hasn’t yet made it to production.

Back then, studios weren’t obsessed with the Chinese market in the same way, but it’s still surprising that it hasn’t resurfaced since: a rom-com targeting a wide international audience in this way would seem to be an obvious way to kickstart the genre again. But if it’s not “Lost For Words,” look for some kind of co-production or similar to attempt the same before too long.

Of course, international co-productions aren’t the only answer: as studios have been reminded of with “Neighbors” and to a lesser extent “Tammy,” comedies can still turn huge profits if they’re made for the right price (neither cost over $20 million). This is a cyclical business, and audiences ultimately want a degree of variety, and just as soon as someone says “no one goes to see pirate movies,” someone goes and makes “Pirates of the Caribbean” and makes a fortune.

Some have argued that rom-coms are now stuck with old-fashioned thinking, never really embracing the way that we fall in love now, increasingly online, with a more level playing field between the sexes. This doesn’t mean that we need “Left Swipe: A Tinder Romance” or something, but it does explain a certain disconnect with the few rom-coms that have been hitting theaters and attracting a younger audience. It’s worth noting that the last time that the genre hit the doldrums was in the 1970s, when executives feared that an era of sexual liberation had put paid to the fairy-tale romance.

“When Harry Met Sally,” and others of the 1980s/1990s rom-com heyday, certainly kiboshed that notion. It seems pretty clear that there is an audience for the romantic comedy out there (I hope so, anyway—I’m making one next year). One of the things that unifies us all is that at some point, we’re falling in love, or out of love, or we’ve been dumped, or we’re waiting for the right person to come along. But right now, studio executives need to be bold, put their boomboxes over their heads, make the run to the proverbial airport, or risk losing rom-com fans to the small-screen forever.

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