It's Valentine's Day, and Fifty Shades Darker looks set to dominate the American box office, although it will have some stiff competition in the form of The Lego Batman Movie. What it won’t face competition from is other movies in the romance genre; its main competition for the week is a children's animated film parody of superheroes and John Wick: Chapter Two, an over-the-top assassin thriller starring Keanu Reeves. The following week, which will be date weekend for most Valentine's celebrations, sees the releases of A Cure for Wellness, Fist Fight and The Great Wall. What used to be the trademark spot for an entire genre of film is now bereft of any romance (with one very popular exception).
This isn’t limited to February either. Once upon a time, romances and romcoms (collected together under the somewhat pejorative moniker ‘chick flick’) were staples of the cinematic calendar, offering low to mid-budget tent-pole projects for rising and established female stars, and catapulting them to box office success and A-list recognition. In 1990, the highest grossing film of the year was Ghost, with Pretty Woman taking third place (both films were subsequently nominated for Oscars); The Bodyguard comfortably took the number two spot in the top 10 box office grosses of 1992, second only to Aladdin; Four Weddings and a Funeral grossed over $245m in 1994 and won a Best Picture Oscar nomination for its troubles; Jerry Maguire followed suit in 1996, followed by As Good As It Gets and Titanic in 1997.
The rest of the decade saw top grossing romances and romcoms like There's Something About Mary, Shakespeare In Love and Notting Hill, and the trend continued in the early 2000s thanks to What Women Want and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which to this day remains the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time.
Yet that particular list has remained stagnant for close to a decade now. From 2003 onwards, the highest grossing films of each year have almost exclusively been franchise fare or established names, from superheroes to Harry Potter and Pixar. Hitch from 2006 and Mamma Mia from 2008 are notable outliers of romance breaking the top 10, not to mention the hugely profitable Twilight franchise, but what used to be a rule of money-making in Hollywood has quickly become the exception.
Most of this change has nothing to do with the genre itself. Hollywood’s model changed dramatically in the 2000s, with budgets getting bigger, franchises dominating the market, and the promise of A-list lead actors becoming less important to getting a project greenlit. Expectations as to what constitutes a hit are much higher, as box office records are smashed yearly and passing a billion dollars considered inevitable with projects like the Marvel and DC cinematic universes. The mid-budget movie has suffered in this age (only two of last year’s 10 highest grossing films had a budget under $100m), so a romcom costing $60m and grossing 4 or 5 times that is a pleasant surprise, but it’s not something studios are banking on - nor do they necessarily need to.
Romance has always faced this problem - and not just in the film industry. In publishing, romance novels make up around a billion dollars a year of profits in North America, yet they receive a fraction of the critical appraisal and market respect of works designed to appeal to a male audience. One of the prevailing assumptions that entertainment has built its ethos on is the idea that women-centered stories and genres are solely for women, but stories about men are universally relatable (this is a falsehood that is also applied to people of color and their works). Shoving women further out of the story and focusing on genres that are marketed mostly to men and boys makes it even harder for women to have their voices heard.
The genre is also not something many actresses are keen to tie themselves to nowadays. While '90s stars like Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock established themselves through romcoms and rose to bank-breaking salaries as a result, today the remains of the genre are seen as a bad investment for a starlet hoping to make an impression. Those who did star in such films now see them dismissed as early years mistakes, such as the pre-Marvel films of Chris Evans or Kristen Stewart’s work in the Twilight film. Fairly or otherwise, the romantic genre became seen as inherently inferior. Individual critical flops became seen as examples of the entire genre, relegating it further down the ranks of respectability as superheroes and space battles reigned supreme, and for the most part it seems as though Hollywood is happy to let it remain that way.
Yet romance and romcoms aren’t dead yet. Sometimes they’re just given a bro-friendly paint-job to avoid scaring away male moviegoers - Judd Apatow’s films in many ways echo the tropes of the romcom genre, most notably Knocked Up, yet are seldom perceived as such. Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck is a very traditional romcom story with raunchier edges, and Lynn Shelton’s Laggies is a sharp comedy with a romantic subplot that slid under the radar as a ‘mumblecore’ effort.
The indie market seems to be picking up the slack that Hollywood won’t, even if they don’t fully embrace the label of romcom or romance: Ruby Sparks, Obvious Child, Her, Sleeping With Other People, and Enough Said standing as a mere handful of acclaimed examples from the past several years. The Big Sick made huge waves at this year's Sundance Festival and walked away with a $12m deal from Amazon. Meanwhile, on television, shows like Outlander, Catastrophe, Jane the Virgin, Younger, and Master of None take the genre’s traits and explore new and hidden depths with characters and situations that reshape the mould for a modern audience.
Expectations remain low from Hollywood for the genre, but creators are keen to show romance and romcoms at their best, and audiences are responding accordingly. With Fifty Shades Darker’s box office projections sitting comfortably high, perhaps it’s time for the industry to re-evaluate what these stories can offer.