Notes from the Margins: Romance Isn’t Dead…It’s Just Different

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Here’s a scary thought – 40 years from now, the story many grandparents will be telling their grandkids about how they met and fell in love will include the words “fuckbuddies,” “Tinder,” and “emoji.”

Not exactly Bogey and Bacall, is it?

And I believe this newfound way of finding love, romance or sexual satisfaction is one of the reasons Romantic Comedies have not been working at the box office lately. Because present-day love stories that involve anyone under 45 that doesn’t also involve texting, tend to seem implausible and not genuine. And ones that do seem cold and pandering to youth markets.Silver+Linings+Playbook+11

How much have romantic comedies cooled in popularity?

In 2009, there were 5 romantic comedies that grossed over $40M and 2 that grossed over $100M.
In 2010, there were 4 romantic comedies that grossed over $40M.
In 2011, there were 6 that grossed over $40M
In 2012, there were 3 (including dramedy Silver Linings Playbook)
In 2013, there were 2.
In 2014, there was 2.

Silver Linings Playbook was the only romantic comedy (and it’s a stretch calling it that), that has grossed over $100M since 2011. And Think Like A Man is the only other romcom to gross over $50M since 2012. That is a sad state of affairs for the comedy of love.

Romantic comedies have always been a hard sell because they don’t translate well overseas and they usually require a package (a known actor, director, or producer) to do so. What is romantic and sexual in the U.S., is not necessarily what is romantic and sexual in Europe or South America or China. There are some themes and concepts in romcoms that are universal that can make them easier to adapt to local language films in different territories, but it doesn’t mean the American movie version will sell there.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them though!

Romance will always sell in some way, and luckily, romantic dramas have been picking up the slack, as there have been numerous successful films in this genre the last few years. But whether in comedy or drama, today’s romantic trends at the box office are different than even a decade ago. Could you imagine two people connecting over a radio show in 2014 and not being able to figure out how to contact each other?

So as romance in the 21st century changes, the way you write it needs to as well.

Love stories used to be about wish-fulfillment – the sweeping epic romance or the ultimate romantic fantasy of the type of never-ending love everyone was told they could achieve when they were growing up. But today, it’s about the imperfect love. It’s about reflecting how love works today, not the ways we WISH it was. It’s less about wishing you were the character in the movie, and more about seeing yourself in the character.

This is a huge change in the character development of love stories. Because while we all love the girl next door, the girl next door now has just as many flaws as the crazy chick across the street.

Of course, some elements of true love will never change – chemistry, conflict, attraction, longing, sacrifice, pain – it’s just about exploiting them in new ways that connect with an audience who has never seen a rotary phone. Boy meets girl will always work – it’s just about changing up where they meet, how they meet, what happens once they meet, what’s at stake once they meet, what keeps them apart, what forces them together, and who this boy and girl are.

The chemistry between your lead characters should come out in their dialogue, their body language, the staging and choreography of each scene, etc. Even if your two lead characters don’t speak a word to each other or formally meet for 30 pages, if they are in the same room, we should feel their connection. They need a spark. Yes, some of this comes from the acting, but Hugh Grant can’t be in EVERY movie, so it has to be on the page as well.

Connected to the chemistry – and hopefully enhancing it – is the conflict. There’s some mathematical equation between them, but I studied screenwriting not math, so I have no idea what it is. But the love story should never be easy. You need to build their romance (and the comedy) with obstacles, differing opinions, opposing motivations and goals, etc., or else it’s boring. Always remember – if they feel right for each other on page one, and there is nothing on page 2 to pull them apart, then your story is over on page 3.

What keeps potential lovers apart is different these days too. It used to be distance or just another woman or maybe some internal emotional baggage was enough conflict to drive a story and character arc, but now obstacles have to be bigger, harder to overcome, and with higher stakes. The sacrifices your characters are willing to make for true love need to be more impressive.

Often, it’s their profession or society or time or the threat of death itself that compels two people together or propels them apart. Your hook should tie into whatever that element is. Look at Fault in Our Stars, About Time, Her, The Vow, Safe Haven, Blended, Warm Bodies – they all have a specific hook that ties into and affects the core relationship.

Romantic comedies used to just be characterized as “chick flicks” because the story was told from the female character POV most of the time, and it was usually women that flocked to them and sometimes forced their husbands or boyfriends to go along. One of the biggest trends the last few years, however, has been to refocus the romcom around the male character.

It started with films like Wedding Crashers and 40 Year-Old Virgin, and has continued with That Awkward Moment, About Last Night, Think Like A Man, Don Juan, Her, Warm Bodies, Drinking Buddies, About Time, etc. So to maximize box office appeal, your film should appeal to men just as much as women – which means no more one-sided male-bashing stories.

Giving your romcom concept a genre twist can make it stand out as well. Twilight was a pretty standard love story – but when added to vampires and werewolves, it became a billion dollar franchise. Warm Bodies was an original and compelling love story because it was set against a zombie apocalypse. Just as a fun exercise, look at your love story and see if adding a genre element might make it even more original and fun.

And finally, if you’re writing romcoms, you also need to write them at a certain budget level to make it advantageous to produce. If they cost more than $25M and don’t star Sandra Bullock or Channing Tatum, it’s probably going to be a pass. Blended is the only romcom with a budget of $40M+ since 2011, and that’s because of Sandler and Barrymore’s salaries. FYI, the film only recouped its costs because of Sandler’s name overseas.

Romance isn’t dead – it’s just digital. And to write the next great American love story, your concept and characters need to resonate with the American public. My best advice is to take a look at your own personal love story and then find a way to make it more cinematic so that audiences will walk out of the theater saying, “I think I’m in love with that movie.”

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