The plot structure of a romantic comedy has been a crowd pleaser since the days of Shakespeare. But a Reuters analysis of the top-grossing U.S. films found that far fewer romantic comedies are becoming box office hits.
Looking at the top 20 films each year since 1980, Reuters found that movie-goers have been losing interest in rom-coms since the early 2000s. Leading the genre to suffer the same, heart-broken fate of the narrative arc that defines the romantic comedy.
The question is whether the audience will find its way back to the genre in the end.
America has a crush
The 80s started to see viewers falling in love with the genre known for its humor and charm. 1989’s When Harry Met Sally marks the beginning of a golden era of the romantic comedy according to Scott Meslow, author of From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy.
Interest in the genre started to grow later in the decade which saw rom-coms become hits in theaters.
A grid of movie posters shows the top 20 movies for each year in the 1980s. Romantic comedies are highlighted.
America falls in love
The golden age of romantic comedy arrived in the 1990s. Romantic comedies helped create careers, particularly among actresses, and much of the appeal of some of these films were recognizable faces on movie posters. Stars like Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant would go on to have decades-long careers.
A grid of movie posters shows the top 20 movies for each year in the 1990s. Romantic comedies are highlighted.
The early 2000s brought the peak of the romantic comedy: My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the highest-grossing romantic comedy to date, and three total movies made the top 20 in the year 2002.
A grid of movie posters shows the top 20 movies for each year in the 2000s. Romantic comedies are highlighted.
The 2010s to now
By the 2010s, romantic comedies had largely stopped seeing as much success as in the decades prior. Crazy Rich Asians is the only film in the genre to make the 20 top-grossing movies from 2010 to date.
It was around here that studios began prioritizing projects with higher budgets with spectacular big-screen visuals: think Avatar 2 or any blockbuster Marvel movie.
“We’re in an era where audiences have kind of been sold that the theatrical needs spectacle to it,” Meslow said.
A grid of movie posters shows the top 20 movies for each year in the 2010s. Romantic comedies are highlighted.
The decline in rom-com hits can be explained by disinvestment in the genre from the big movie studios according to Meslow.
“Part of the reason the death of the rom-com [narrative] was a misnomer was it coincided with the death of the mid-budget Hollywood film,” he said. “Studios got out of that mid range.”
While the romantic comedy did not die completely, our data show this decline at the box office after 2010:
While being cast in a rom-com could launch a career, many stars, especially women, became known for and pigeonholed by their association with the genre. In fact, an uptick in popular romantic comedies in recent years has been characterized by familiar faces known for their past rom-com roles.
“The most interesting thing to me has been watching the old stars return to the genre, including people who had disavowed it,” Meslow said. “Last year in pretty rapid succession we had rom-coms with J-Lo, Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts.”
From Meg Ryan to Katherine Heigl, certain faces have become synonymous with different eras in the genre.
Where are we today?
Box office data can only tell part of the story as streaming has changed the industry, particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The more traditional romantic comedy will have its place on streaming, according to Meslow, and box office investments will continue to incorporate big budget spectacle that audiences have come to expect on a theater screen. Think: a gorgeous tropical destination such as in Ticket to Paradise and Crazy Rich Asians, or a roaring Jennifer Lopez concert in Marry Me.
Data is current as of Feb 14, 2023.
Feilding Cage and Diane Craft