Did you see The Back-Up Plan? How about The Five-Year Engagement? The Bounty Hunter? Anything Katherine Heigl did after Knocked Up? You have? Then let me ask, are you ever going to watch any of them again?
In any film genre I can usually find enough solace in the five-star classics to make up for the two-star clones that follow. This is becoming less and less the case with romantic comedies. Crazy, Stupid, Love was terrific and surprising, and Friends With Benefits had Aaron Sorkin– levels of witty dialogue, but there were a dozen films like The Switch in between that were discouraging and disappointing.
The reason for this is the same reason that Universal made Battleship and Paramount has hired Michael Bay to do a fourth Transformers film. Hollywood executives are dealing with piracy and the threat of HBO and AMC in the only way they know how. Fewer films are being made each year, and the ones that are greenlit are broad-appeal PG-13 films with major star names attached for maximum marketability. These can make decent money in the U.S. and then sweep up in the lucrative Asian market. I’m not joking when I say that this is why Dreamworks is planning five more Kung Fu Panda sequels.
The rom-com (romantic-comedies) genre evolved out of the melodramas and slapstick comedies of the ’20s and came into mass popularity with screwball comedies like It Happened One Night. To qualify as rom-com, a film needs two people to fall in love and for nothing (like death) to separate them at the end. That’s it. Everything else is up for creative interpretation. So why are there so many lousy boyfriends keeping the girl from the right guy until act three? Why does everybody work in advertising or publishing? Why is the right girl always the quirky one who resembles Zooey Deschanel?
This dilution of artistic integrity is obviously not limited to the romantic comedy genre, and independent producers continue to make critically-praised, good films in all genres, which go on to steal all the major awards from the major studios. But as long as major studios keep their advertising budgets on the level of a small country’s GDP, the general audience will be stuck with the movie that opens in 4000 theatres on Friday and is on Blu-ray three months later.
The good news is that change is coming. Hollywood always bounces back, which is why it has lasted a century. When television stole their audience in the ’50s, filmmakers stole it back with Technicolor and bigger screens. When VHS changed the market in the ’70s, producers handed creative power to young directors like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese. The digital age has done it again, and Hollywood has already started to shift. Like before, they are fighting back with new technology (3D) and new talent. When Marvel hired Joss Whedon he was widely unknown. He had several cancelled TV shows and an eager, but small fan base. Then he made The Avengers, which has become the third highest-grossing film of all time ($1.5 billion).
If a filmmaker like Whedon, the man behind the no-budget web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog, can become the toast of Hollywood, then there is plenty to hope for. Christopher Nolan is the clearest example of how a filmmaker who makes good films can gain independence, which gives him the freedom to make even better, bigger films. Directors like Nicholas Winding Refn and Duncan Jones are following in Nolan’s steps and gaining the credentials necessary to gain creative independence.
For those of you who suffered through Killers, Did You Hear About the Morgans?, and The Ugly Truth, I offer you this solution: while Hollywood sorts itself out and finds new talent, take a look at the past for your romance needs. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Groundhog Day (1993), Annie Hall (1977), The Apartment (1960), The Philadelphia Story (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), It Happened One Night (1934), and City Lights (1931) are called “classic” for very good reasons. Films like Made of Honor do not keep audiences coming back for eighty years.
This argument for rediscovering the classics is not only meant to be a list of recommendations. The fact is, that until films like The Proposal stop making $300 million worldwide the studios will not stop making predictable, hit-and-miss, sometimes-funny films that rely on awkward situations and ad-lib from talented actors who deserve better. Stop picking the films that have all the advertising and 55 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The Internet is there for you. Use it. Let the critics watch bad films for free so that your ticket revenue can go to innovative filmmakers. Don’t call everything made before 2010 “old,” try watching a foreign film every once in a while, and don’t expect Heigl to pick a good script.