Monday, 10 November 2014

The Rom-Com Audience

To go about investigating the rom-com audience I would consider:
  • online searches, variations of 'rom-com box office' with other keywords such as 'uk' 'world' 'all-time' etc
  • blogs and columns dedicated to box office analysis, not least the Film Guardian series on UK, US or global box office
  • check the Wiki entry to see if there is a box office list/discussion
    Images + video/audio clips were included in this audience research vid
  • look up book indexes and have a flick through magazines/journals such as Sight and Sound or the Media Magazine
  • have a look at the archive (and links lists) on my BritishCinema, AS Coursework and Rom-Com blogs
As well as such secondary research, you could conduct your own unique primary research by investigating whether, for example, there is recognition of a range of rom-com films/characters/soundtracks, by designing an interactive questionnaire using some audio-visual stimulus. The example pictured (on Amber's 2015 A2 blog) is for a music video production, but the principles remain the same - you can use the audience links/posts on my blogs, and past student blogs (including the TWO AS Evaluation questions on audience) to help with researching audience as well!
I've had a quick look at some of these, and have picked out just a few points below. Be clear on why you are researching the nature of any genre's audience (or market):

  • film production hinges on persuading financiers that a project has a reasonable prospect of making a profit
  • most distribution companies will demand to know who the star/s is/are, and what hit films this production can be compared to - they'll want to know it is a solid concept they think they can successfully market
  • the quirkier and more original a film concept is, sadly, the less likely it is to gain distribution, or at least big-money distribution giving it a chance of breakthrough success, becoming a box office success - the movie business is centred on repeating successful, easily-communicated formulas
  • your casting, dialogue ('mode of address'), BBFC rating, locations, music etc should all reflect your very clear idea of who will constitute your primary audience, and what additional factors you have incorporated to help widen appeal to some secondary audience demographics
  • hybridity, as with rom-com itself, can be a ploy here too!
  • The rom-com has a long track record of significant box office success, with most years featuring some breakthrough globally $250m+ hits
  • Working Title effectively built its success on the back of the Richard Curtis/Hugh Grant rom-coms, which have now grossed over $2bn worldwide ... though recent efforts haven't had the same impact as Notting Hill, Four Weddings, Bridget Jones... or Love Actually
  • There are rom-coms to cater for every type of audience: the highly sophisticated (ABC1, arthouse) such as Woody Allen's films; the mainstream, adult (but still appealing significantly to younger audiences) films such as About a Boy; the teen rom-com, often in a school setting, such as Ten Things I Hate About You, Submarine and Wild Child
    The zom-rom-com; hybridity increasingly key?
  • It is noticeable that most hit rom-coms tend to be 12/15 (UK) or PG/PG-13 (USA) - though, as always, there are exceptions (There's Something About Mary was 18/R)
  • The biggest hits, in both UK and international box office, tend to be US-produced and/or feature major US stars (Working Title have successfully used this formula)
  • Whilst perceived as a female-centred genre, many of the hit rom-coms have centred on male protagonists (Mel Gibson in What Every Woman Wants, Hugh Grant in About a Boy, John Cusack in High Fidelity). To be a mainstream, breakthrough success, the male lead must have sex appeal (female gaze!) and have an on-screen persona that men can empathise or identify with and/or will aspire to (aspiration is one of the motivations for audience choice in the uses and gratifications audience model)
  • However, huge breakthrough hits such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bridesmaids have shown that female ensemble casts can generate huge box office
  • Budgets vary, with cast the key factor, but films such as High Fidelity, About a Boy and Bridget Jones's Diary all had to factor in IP (intellectual property) or licensing rights for major hit novels
  • The perceived decline in rom-coms' box office strength has led to an increasing hybridity, with rom-com + another genre becoming more common (eg zom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead, social realist rom-com Submarine). Warm Bodies is another zom-rom-com, also based on a YA (Young Adult) novel
  • There are Indie, alternative rom-coms too; its not always about the stars: Submarine had no big names (certainly not on an international level); Napoleon Dynamite is simply a very odd (but utterly brilliant!) film (albeit linked to Fox); Rushmore is a rather dark, deadpan rom-com (again... simply superb!); then there's Juno, or 500 Days of Summer...
  • The genre is seen as too much of a career risk by many Hollywood agents and managers, leading to many big names avoiding the genre
  • The absence of CGI has added to the growing struggles of the rom-com; as budgets will tend to be low-to-medium, far below the tentpole level of the endless sci-fi/fantasy and action films (or even animated) films that have been dominating box office for many years now, the big six studios are unlikely to go into the sort of marketing overdrive we saw with Skyfall, Avatar or, right now, the final Hunger Games release
  • Other domestic markets beyond the UK and US are enjoying some success with rom-coms, eg China's Finding Mr Right kept US blockbusters off the top of the Chinese box office in 2013
  • Perhaps the biggest issue, one identified by the Farrelly brothers (There's Something About Mary), is the lack of franchise opportunities - the guy/girl will typically get the guy/girl, so there's little natural scope for sequels
  • Of course, there are always exceptions: Bridget Jones's Diary is pencilled for a third installment in 2017 (Bridget Jones' Baby), while About a Boy is now also a TV series!
IMDB integrates a lot of their data. Lists such as the one pictured feature a contemporary top rom-com list (from 1978) - but take care to note whether this is for the worldwide or just US box office. In this case, 'domestic' (or 'home') means US box office.

What to note from this? There are 27 rom-coms which have topped $100m in the USA alone, and 3 of the top 50 are British (specifically, Working Title) productions: Notting Hill (21), Shakespeare in Love (27), and Bridget Jones's Diary (47).

We know that there have been some $billion box office hits, so it seems that rom-com can provide big hits, but maybe nothing on a par with sci-fi/fantasy tentpole productions such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Avatar or any of the current slew of comic book adaptations, or to rival equally tentpole, CGI-heavy action epics such as the Bond or Bourne franchises, or the Fast/Furious franchise.
The BOMojo data is widely used; this is a more graphic representation

Sky, clearly aware that a large part of their customer base will be rom-com fans, provide a countdown of the top 100 rom-coms by box office. Their list appears to be a UK countdown, although separate UK box office figures are not always easily found to verify this. Their number 1, Pretty Woman, is number 4 on the boxofficemojo list. The top UK-produced entry is Bridget Jones's Diary at number 7, though it is notable that WT incorporated a US star into this and nearly all their hit rom-coms.
BJD is #7 on the SkyMovies list

This site provides an inflation-adjusted list, which pushes Notting Hill, an early breakout hit for Working Title, up the rankings to #8 (this time on a narrowed 1995-2014 US box office list), with Shakespeare in Love also featuring at #12. Most of the films listed include (or even centre on) male protagonists - the biggest of them all, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, like 2011's Bridesmaids (which the site don't seem to have considered a rom-com), was an exception, largely focussed on a female ensemble cast - indicating that the male audience is a significant, even if secondary part of the equation, male gaze notwithstanding! This is the opposite tack from horror production - stereotypically a male-centred genre, it actually usually features a female protagonist (the final girl), and not an overtly glamorous one at that.
Only 1995-2014, but ranked by inflation-adjusted figures

If you take a major hit rom-com such as the Mel Gibson vehicle What Every Woman Wants, it is the male lead who is the key marketing and thus box office factor. Holly Hunter features on the posters to help anchor the romantic genre, but she is not particularly selling the film, especially beyond the USA. This point made me think of a comment I noticed in a recent Film Guardian box office column by Charles Gant...

Gant gave his name to the 'Gant rule' (a typical box office hit will generate x10 the box office from the US as it will in the UK). In a November 2014 column, he reflected on the waning appeal of Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe:
Hoping to catch some Halloween updraft, Horns, starring Daniel Radcliffe, landed rather weakly in 11th place, with £396,000 from 379 cinemas, including £95,000 in previews. Going just by weekend numbers, that’s roughly comparable with Radcliffe’s last film, romcom What If, which began with £336,000 plus £257,000 in previews. Radcliffe enjoyed a huge hit with The Woman in Black, but has subsequently proved less commercially surefooted. Risk-averse studios will be pondering the degree to which Radcliffe ticks the “guys want to be him, women want to be with him” boxes, usually accepted as prerequisites for A-list stardom among male film actors.
As well as Gant's UK box office analysis, you can also find US and global analyses
I've added emphasis to the key point here, the “guys want to be him, women want to be with him” that a star needs to be able to "open" a film (ie, their star appeal will draw in a wide audience). In the Nick Hornby adaptations High Fidelity and About a Boy (about to remade as a TV series), the male lead (John Cusack and Hugh Grant respectively) must be a figure of lust for women (female gaze) but also play a character males will identify with and perhaps aspire to.

The site has another very useful data table, presenting a breakdown of the annual box office share for rom-com films. The long-term trend has been around 5-7%, significant but certainly not market-leading. However, we can see a recent dip in this, falling below 2% in 2013. There seem to be more rom-coms getting released, but a reduced overall market share and fewer major breakout hits.
For a possible explanation of this, I'll turn to an unlikely source, the Farrelly brothers - who are identified with 'gross-out' comedies, although this includes such huge hits as There's Something About Mary.

Although I'm highlighting the fraternal film-making Farrelly team here, the quotes come from a article by .
Peter Farrelly, who co-wrote and directed the 1998 Ur-gross-out rom-com There’s Something About Mary, says a large amount of blame for the decline rests not with demography (“Harry and Sally weren’t spring chickens, keep in mind”), but with Hollywood’s studios and their ever-greater emphasis on blockbuster franchises. A one-off romance not only offers no visual spectacle, but also holds little promise of future, dependable cash flow. “Everyone’s looking for the next sequel,” says Farrelly. “But with romantic comedies, it doesn’t happen that way. What happens after ‘happily ever after,’ people aren’t that interested in. There was actually talk for a while at Fox about doing a There’s Something Else About Mary — to which we said, ‘We’ll do that only if it turns out that Mary has balls.’ I have no interest in remaking the same movie over again.”
The full article is very useful; it goes on to flag up that the rom-com can't compete with CGI spectaculars, but also argues that a growing shift towards four quadrant strategy (trying to appeal to young, old, male and female!) is diluting the rom-com appeal. Are there also just too few reliable stars to sell films which don't have a franchise to boost the recognition factor?
“The romantic comedy genre is the ultimate movie-star genre,” says one agent, “and there just are not enough movie stars to sustain the same number of these films as you saw in years or decades past.” However, when Hollywood finds someone who has success in the genre, they cast them over and over again until people get tired of them (witness the declining grosses for Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson). Many young actresses and agents have seen these cautionary tales and steered clear of the genre altogether.
Is there a vicious circle of casting based on success in other genres, ignoring the need for on-screen chemistry, leading to studio executives concluding that it takes action/CGI to draw in the key young female viewer?
“Romantic comedy is a genre for casting, not packaging,” says Obst. “These are fantasy machines: They require hormones, great casting, and chemistry. But that’s not how most studio movies are made today. They’re not cast by casting directors looking for [those factors]; they’re cast by picking whoever has the best international numbers, even though they’re generalizing from the wrong principle.” And then, Obst adds, when these miscast films fail, studios take it as proof that the genre is dead, and that the female moviegoer is “younger and driven only by franchises like The Hunger Games and Twilight.”
With the rom-com seen to be failing, there has been a move to hybridity:
With the familiar formulas no longer working, studios have come to believe that the category “rom-com” has become a stigma, and so they have been melding it with other genres. “The genre got a bad name somehow,” says Brooks, who posits that it “may have gone too far in the direction of ‘chick flick’” and that, as a result, "now, you almost need to hide what you're doing." 
We can see this in such familiar UK productions as Shaun of the Dead (a zom-rom-com, adding horror to the rom-com mix) and less well-known examples such as Warp's Submarine (social realist rom-com). Some would argue that Ted is actually an example of a 'hidden' rom-com.

Yes, this is repeating a point from above, but it deserves emphasis! With so many studio executives considering the rom-com a declining genre, producers have looked to boost box office appeal by roping in a third (remember, the rom-com is already a hybrid, with comedy designed to help boost male appeal) genre, not least horror. Shaun of the Dead coined the concept zom-rom-com, but this has been explored again with 2013's Warm Bodies, a decent US hit.
UK lead, US production; a zom-rom-com

Jonathan Levine (“50-50”) adapted the “Warm Bodies” screenplay from Isaac Marion's 2010 young adult novel of the same name and directed the film. The story follows the zombie lad R (Nicholas Hoult) who saves Julie (Teresa Palmer) from an attack by other zombies. When their relationship takes off, it threatens to transform the lifeless world. Rob Corddry, John Malkovich and Dave Franco co-star.
Marketing “Warm Bodies” to young audiences would appear to be in the sweet spot for Summit and its parent company Lionsgate, which had great success with movies based on young adult novels like the “Twilight” series and “Hunger Games.”
But getting the word out on the “zom-rom-com” was tricky, Lionsgate's executive vice-president and general sales manager David Spitz told TheWrap Sunday, because there weren't any comparable films upon which to base a marketing strategy.
“It was clear we had a unique property with this picture,” he said. “We thought about It and made a conscious decision to focus on the romantic and comedy aspects of this film, and our marketing team did a terrific job.”
"Warm Bodies" received a "B+" CinemaScore from audiences, which were 65 percent under 25 years of age and 60 percent female. Its PG-rating helped; 37 percent of the audience was under 18.

As well as films such as Working Title hits Notting Hill and Four Weddings... being box office hits in markets across the world, the rom-com is a genre Chinese and many other countries' producers have turned to. Films such as 2013's Finding Mr. Right managed to fight off competition from Hollywood blockbusters to top China's box office, showing that the rom-com has true global appeal, and its appeal is not entirely contingent on US stars.

Can rom-coms appeal to all? []
Whilst, in common with all genres, the inclusion of star/s is often central to box office prospects, there is a healthy range of Indie rom-coms, plus studio-linked productions are quite alternative, often subversive. The likes of Rushmore may have a teen lead, and be a teen high school rom-com in essence, but its auteur director, and the presence of Bill Murray, not to mention the subversive, tragicomic storyline ensured this became a cult movie with enduring (long tail) appeal to younger and older viewers.
Warp's Submarine revelled in its weirdness, from the unfamiliar (for a UK, not just international, audience accustomed to London/Southern England) Welsh setting to the arhcaic, fogeyish language of the protagonist and the bizarre behaviour of the object of his affections.
Napoleon Dynamite features an equally unusual romantic pairing, while the likes of 500 Days of Summer seem to have benefitted from its Indie status by being perceived as an alternative to studio fare.

See (10 rom coms that won't make you puke); (Top five alternative romcoms of the 21st century);

Film production companies always hope that their productions will appeal to a broad audience, though need to have a clear target audience in mind when making all manner of creative decisions (casting, costume, music etc). At the tentpole level, the four quadrant strategy is simply a must - to get a return on the $100m+ (latest Hunger Games film budget: $250m) tentpole movie, you must appeal to young, old, male and female.
However, there are some niche markets that film-makers have successfully targeted, including the black American (or African-American) audience.
And while the Vegas-set Think like a Man Too failed to outstrip its predecessor ($65m compared with $91m), there are still signs that the black romcom is as worthy of tent-pole status as Hollywood’s more traditionally fantastic fare. This summer’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, in which Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller revisited the original’s bloody, hyper-stylised comic book universe after a nine-year break, was completely ignored by audiences. By contrast, the African-American ensemble of 2001’s nuptials comedy The Best Man reunited last year for festive sequel The Best Man Holiday, which doubled the original’s $35m domestic take.

In fact, never mind sci-fi or comic book movies: showcasing its nine gorgeous fortysomething stars, the poster for The Best Man Holiday looks like a black romcom version of an Expendables one-sheet; a constellation of African-American stars who, while not handed the blockbusters like the Washingtons (Denzel or Kerry), have remained stalwarts of the type of rom§com exemplified by the original movie. Sanaa Lathan (Brown Sugar, The Wood, Love & Basketball) is the movement’s Meg Ryan, which probably makes Taye Diggs, her love interest here and in Brown Sugar, its Tom Hanks. Then there’s Nia Long (Love Jones) and Think Like a Man alums Hall and Morris Chestnut.
It’s not just the hard-grafting leads that connect these two sequels, either. Playing to their audiences with a focus that would make Michael Bay proud, both films ensure that even their white cast members have pedigree in black movies: The Best Man Holiday hooks Long up with Eddie Cibrian, who starred alongside Union in Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds and Chestnut, Henson and Hart in Not Easily Broken (he re-teamed with Perry and Long this Spring in The Single Moms Club), while Think Like a Man Too complements the returning Jerry Ferrara and Gary Owen – a white standup beloved by black audiences – with Baggage Claim’s Adam Brody and The Single Moms Club’s Wendi McLendon-Covey.

Despite the considerable success they've enjoyed with sci-fi/fantasy productions and action flicks, even Sony Entertainment chief executive Michael Lynton argues that we're overdue a decent rom-com hit:
There hasn’t been a “significant romantic comedy in the market for two to three years. That category or genre has been abandoned by Hollywood for the time being. And that goes for a bunch of different genre,” Lynton said in a question-and-answer session.
He noted that the movie business is also under threat by other, potentially lasting challenges. Home movie viewing has gotten better and more sophisticated.
Hollywood, he said, needs to take more risks. “Ultimately the audience wants to be surprised. They want to see something they haven’t seen before,” Lynton said. “We ought to wait and see next summer — and see if we deliver the films people want to see.”

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