My paycheck says I am economist. But I also watch a lot of movies, monitor box office results, and fantasize about casting terrible movie ideas in my head (coming to a theater next fall: The Moving Boyfriend). Today we will combine all four of those skillsets to identify successful romantic comedies (using US box office results), analyze what contributed to their success, and attempt to build a rom-com film treatment from the ground up.

Rom-coms do not dominate the all-time box office results but that doesn’t mean a light-hearted comedy about 2 knuckleheads falling in love cannot make a shit ton of money. For the purpose of this case study we are going with the ‘if you have to ask’ criteria for what is considered a rom-com. This means that not every chick-flick is a romantic comedy and if you have to ask if it really is a romantic comedy then it probably is not. There are a few examples I left out because they seemed more like a love story with comic relief instead of a comedy with a love story. And I may have missed a few because there really are not very many that show up in the top 200 movies and I scrolled fast looking for names. Also I am not adjusting any of these for inflation because I am a lazy economist (assume older movies represent more 2011 dollars but whether they actually would make more nowadays is debatable).

73. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) $241,437,427

137. What Women Want (2000) $182,805,123

148. Pretty Woman (1990) $178,406,268

149. Hitch (2005/I) $177,575,142

186. The Proposal (2009/I) $163,947,053

211. Jerry Maguire (1996) $153,620,822 (I debated including this one. Seems more like a love story with comic relief)

215. Runaway Bride (1999) $152,149,590

219. Knocked Up (2007) $148,734,225 (not what people normally think of as a rom-com but that’s really what it is)

225. As Good as It Gets (1997) $147,637,474 (makes me laugh enough to count)

313. Sweet Home Alabama (2002) $127,214,072

318. My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) $126,805,112

320. Sleepless in Seattle (1993) $126,670,704

331. Something’s Gotta Give (2003) $124,590,960

345. 50 First Dates (2004) $120,776,832

350. Four Christmases (2008) $120,136,047

363. The Break-Up (2006) $118,683,135

380. Notting Hill (1999) $116,006,080

383. You’ve Got Mail (1998) $115,731,542

397. It’s Complicated (2009) $112,703,470

STAR POWER

A couple things stand out immediately. 4 of the top 15-20 grossing rom-coms had Julia Roberts. 2 had Tom Hanks. 2 Had Jack Nicholson. 2 had Reese Witherspoon. 2 Had Helen Hunt. And then there are stars leading everyone of these movies with the notable exception of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (more on that in a second), and to a lesser extent Knocked Up. Seriously. Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt, Richard Gere (also twice), Will Smith, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan (also twice), Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn, Hugh Grant, Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep.

If your goal is to make money then you need a star (seems obvious right?). But you actually need a star FROM THIS LIST. And you really should throw all the money you have at Julia Roberts.

The list of male stars also skews older. I have a feeling this has something to do with who actually goes to see these movies (cough.. older women.. cough).

But having a battle-tested rom-com star will not absolutely guarantee box office gold (examples: Larry Crowne which had both Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts… doesn’t this break my rule?).

THERE HAS TO BE SOMETHING AT STAKE

In the same way that Alfred Hitchcock understand that it is far more suspenseful and thrilling to show a bomb with a 5 minutes timer than to merely show an explosion, there must be something at stake in the romantic comedy. Tagline for Larry Crowne “After losing his job, a middle-aged man reinvents himself by going back to college.” Uhh, yeah. There’s no bomb about to go off. Compare that with Pretty Woman “A man in a legal but hurtful business needs an escort for some social events, and hires a beautiful prostitute he meets… only to fall in love.” Think of the stakes! He’s breaking all socially acceptable norms for love! Replace highly successful corporate raider played by Richard Gere with loser going back to college played by Tom Hanks. No wonder it tanked. Stakes are low.

The Proposal: woman will be deported and man will lose job, lie to family and government, fall in love, get engaged, get married. There is a bomb ticking. And the stakes must be raised until it ends in a wedding.

Notting Hill in many ways is Pretty Woman with roles reversed.

IT DOESN’T HURT TO HAVE IT INVOLVE A WEDDING… OR 2… OR 4 (and a funeral)

This is probably a no-brainer but its worth pointing out. My Big Fat Greek Wedding, obvi! The Proposal. Runaway Bride. My Best Friend’s Wedding. Four Christmases may have been a Christmas movie but the central theme is about how when they see their friends and family in love they realize its not good enough just to be boyfriend and girlfriend.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past would have been a lot more successful as Ghosts of Wives Past… and even more successful as Ghosts of Husbands Past (obviously starring Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Tom Hanks, and Will Smith and Jack Nicholson).

continued tomorrow in part 2.

SO WHAT MOVIE DO WE WANT TO MAKE?

Well it has to have a star. Personally I think the Julia Roberts’ and Tom Hanks’ are past their primes and we must identify stars that could potentially lead similar careers and guide us to box office fantasy gold.

While I personally think Anne Hathaway will eventually become the next Julia Roberts, she hasn’t been a world-beater at the box office. And people will return to the theater to see Actresses in familiar roles. Reese Witherspoon is the logical choice.

Reese Witherspoon appears twice on the list and is still young. Vince Vaughn is also young and appears twice on the list. But they hate each other so that ain’t happening. Will Smith is a no-brainer but I bet he makes me change my script. NO DICE, BIG WILLY! Besides, we need to pair her with an older gentlemen. Someone that older women like. Daniel Craig? Pierce Brosnan? Sean Connery Liam Neeson?

We need a wedding. And if I have my way, we need 2 weddings. One at the beginning and one at the end. Double the chance for box office success! Seems simple enough. Tomorrow we will flesh out the FORMULAIC PLOT. Also we will look at Reese Witherspoon’s next movie “This Means War” to see how it compares with the list and make a prediction on how it will fare at the box office.

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