A quick glance at recent US box office figures and at first nothing seems peculiar. Comic-book blockbusters and sequels such as The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises broke records as predicted. But one major failure went largely unnoticed; namely the horrid box office performance of ensemble rom-com What to Expect When You’re Expecting. In hindsight, its poor commercial takings hint at something far larger than the difficulty of competing against more popular blockbuster franchises.
After a poor opening weekend, during which it grossed just over $10 million, the slow and painful death that What to Expect suffered at its domestic box office was a reminder of a larger trend in Hollywood cinema; the gradual demise of the ensemble rom-com genre.
In its contemporary form this particular genre was invented by the king of rom-coms Richard Curtis, whose multi-stranded film Love Actually contained a large cast of prominent British actors in various romantic scenarios. The film was a huge success taking almost $247 million at the worldwide box office on an estimated budget of $40 million. A sizable chunk of its overall gross was accumulated in its home market of the UK but it also managed to draw in crowds in the US – earning close to $60 million. Hollywood was obviously taking note of Curtis’s success but it took a while to get its own similar productions released.
Fast-forward six years to 2009 and Hollywood released its first ensemble rom-com in the form of He’s Just Not That Into You, setting in motion a trend that would subsequently see a similar genre film released every year up until the present. He’s Just Not That Into You featured an all-star cast of male and female actors – including Jennifer Aniston, Scarlett Johansson and Bradley Cooper – and like Love Actually it portrayed an assortment of relationships. Additionally, its use of both film and television stars – most prominently with the casting of Kevin Connolly, star of the television show Entourage, in a lead role – was another trick borrowed from its British predecessor.
He’s Just Not That Into You opened to solid box office returns and went on to gross over $178 million worldwide. Although not as successful as Love Actually, it nonetheless proved that there was still an audience for the genre – a substantial female audience to be precise, according to its distributor Warner Bros.
As is usually the case with Hollywood, spurred by the success of He’s Just Not That Into You, it began its genre onslaught hoping to once again cash in. This ultimately saw the release of Valentine’s Day, Crazy Stupid Love and New Year’s Eve. However, by the time the latter was released toward the end of last year it seemed that most cinemagoers had lost interest, as evidenced by its poor commercial reception. It must also be added that with the exception of Crazy Stupid Love and to a lesser extent Love Actually, all of the ensemble rom-coms received unanimously bad reviews.
However, despite negative critical reaction and a general feeling of disappointment from its audience, Valentine’s Day still remains an important release within the genre for a number of reasons. Firstly it marks the entry of a rom-com veteran into the ensemble genre, namely Garry Marshall director of two of the most popular rom-coms of all time; Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride. Here he was joined by two of the writers of He’s Just Not That Into You and star of those aforementioned blockbusters Julia Roberts. Alongside Roberts is the largest ensemble cast ever used in a rom-com, with an endless list of a-list actors all vying for screen time. Therefore, Valentine’s Day was a case of Hollywood pouring all of its resources into what it viewed as an indestructible investment.
Initially Valentine’s Day proved Hollywood right, grossing over $216 million worldwide by the time it completed its theatrical run. Nonetheless the general air of disappointment that surrounded the film did lasting damage to the genre. But alas it’s the numbers that count in Hollywood and therefore a sort-of sequel to Valentine’s Day, in the form of New Year’s Eve, was immediately given the green-light.
In between, the genre received a momentary respite with the release of the well-received Crazy Stupid Love. The film’s mix of older and younger stars and indie and mainstream talent such as Steve Carrel, Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei and Ryan Gosling bestowed it with added credibility. And despite a slow opening weekend, which saw it peak in fifth place at its domestic box office, it proved to be a sleeper hit going on to gross over $142 million worldwide. However, just as it seemed that there was still life left in the genre, the release of New Year’s Eve a few months later almost single-handedly buried the ensemble rom-com.
So what went wrong? After all New Year’s Eve had the same template as it’s successful predecessor Valentine’s Day, specifically a series of romantic vignettes based around a seasonal theme. It also contained a large a-list cast of film and television actors and even musicians. And finally, experienced filmmaker Garry Marshall was once again back in the director’s chair. Nonetheless, the film did not even manage to claw back its $56 million budget in its domestic market and fared only slightly better overseas. All in all, New Year’s Eve proved to be a massive misfire.
To simply say that New Year’s Eve, and films of its ilk, do not attract enough male moviegoers to prove successful would be a misconception. Films aimed predominantly at women, such as Sex and the City and its sequel, have been hugely successful. Or perhaps it is the fact that Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve both forgo plot and dialogue to concentrate on a bigger equals better formula. Whereas this approach tends to work for blockbusters, rom-coms are meant to provide a form of counter-programming that appeals to a different demographic from the young males that the latter are aimed toward. Although star power does count within the genre’s confines – look no further than the ongoing success of Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl for proof – simply cramming a film full of stars is not enough.
And on that note we reach the final and least commercially successful film within the rom-com ensemble genre; What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Released in May of this year, the expectation was that it would perform well precisely because it could capitalise on an overlooked female audience during the male-oriented summer blockbuster season. Oh how wrong analysts were.
Like He’s Just Not That Into You, What to Expect was also based on non-fiction source material – in this case a self-help pregnancy guide. And like Love Actually and other ensemble rom-coms the film contained both film and television actors including Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez and Mathew Morrison (who plays Will Schuster on the hit television show Glee). However, as previously mentioned, these elements no longer guaranteed box office success. Even the film’s distinct premise, involving a multiple-narrative arc based around pregnancy, couldn’t save it from box office disaster. It eventually grossed a woeful $40.8 million at the US box office and even less worldwide
Now that the dust is starting to settle, and as the busy summer blockbuster season starts to wind down, many producers and studio execs must be taking note of the decline of a once financially viable genre. Looking ahead, there aren’t any ensemble rom-coms in production or due to be released in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, in an environment of reboots and remakes one cannot rule out the genre as a whole. Alas, maybe it was just a case of Hollywood saturating the market. Maybe if more time was spent on the films’ screenplays and less on superficial casting then the case might be different. For the time being, however, it seems that the love for the genre has well and truly worn off and the laughter has died.