How China and Mexico Can Save the Romantic Comedy
In Hollywood, the classic combination of love and laughs no longer adds up financially. But that’s happily not the case everywhere.
You’ve probably heard that the "Star Wars" prequel “Solo” didn’t have the most spectacular of openings. Yes, it was the No. 1 movie in the U.S. and worldwide in its first weekend, but it brought in less than a quarter of what “The Avengers: Infinity War” had four weekends before. In China, since a few months ago the world’s biggest movie market, it came in third behind two movies that weren’t even premiering. No. 2, according to the Bloomberg News account, was “Infinity War.” No. 1 was a romantic comedy called "How Long Will I Love U."
When I read that, I perked up. A romantic comedy was the No. 1 film in China?!? In close-to-prime movie season? In its second week?
The last time a romantic comedy topped the box office in the U.S. and Canada was, I guess, for a week in early February 2015. I say “I guess” because “Focus,” starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie as con artists in an on-and-off romance, isn’t a straightforward example of the genre. Box Office Mojo, the source of all my revenue data here, classifies it simply as a comedy, while the volunteer editors at Wikipedia cover all the bases by describing it as a “romantic crime comedy-drama.” I haven’t seen it (I was interested when it came out and then completely forgot about it) but my impression is that the romance comes in fourth behind the crime, comedy and drama. Another 2015 film that's definitely a romantic comedy, Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck,” outgrossed “Focus” overall but trailed “Ant-Man” and “Minions” its opening week. As best I can tell, the last yes-it’s-definitely-a-romantic-comedy to win a week (and weekend) here was “No Strings Attached,” starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, which premiered in late January 2011.
To slice it another way, the only movie of the past five years to make it onto Box Office Mojo’s inflation-adjusted list of the top-100-grossing romantic comedies since 1978 is “Trainwreck,” at No. 52. Add up the grosses from all 493 romantic comedies for which Box Office Mojo has data, and it’s clear that there’s been a big drop-off since 2011:
Is it that nobody’s going to the romantic comedies that are being made, or that Hollywood isn’t making them anymore? Well, both, but the former came first. Box office revenue per romantic comedy has been on a downward trend, once you adjust for inflation, since the early 1980s.
For a long time, this decline in box office revenue was made up for by DVD sales and rentals: Romantic comedy is the quintessential curl-up-on-the-couch-on-a-Friday-night genre. But the DVD market began to collapse a decade ago, and rising streaming revenue hasn’t made up the difference. This has led Hollywood to focus more and more on overseas markets, and comedies in general tend not to travel well across language barriers. On Valentine’s Day 2017, Vox.com entertainment critic Todd VanDerWerff summed up things up like this:
As studios devote more and more of their budgets to the spectacle-laden blockbusters that perform best overseas and the microbudgeted movies that essentially can’t lose no matter how much (or little) money they make, the mid-budget world has dried up — and that’s exactly where the romantic comedy lived.
It does still live there on television, where the networks can pay part of the bill with advertising and streaming services have found that series are better for attracting and retaining customers than one-off movies are. Jen Chaney, the TV columnist for Vulture, New York magazine’s entertainment site, argued last year that today’s best humorous romantic storylines are to be found on series such as HBO’s “Insecure,” FXX’s “You’re the Worst,” the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and Netflix’s “Master of None.” She’s right, but sometimes a person (that person would be me) just wants to sit down to 90 minutes of low-commitment filmed entertainment on a Friday evening rather than invest lots of time and cognitive resources in a series.
My wife and I actually got to do this a few weeks ago with a new (to us) romantic-comedy movie, which made me realize how rare the experience is nowadays. I had decided to watch a couple of Mexican films in preparation for a reporting trip south of the border, and after putting us through Luis Buñuel’s surreal 1962 classic “The Exterminating Angel,” which my wife hated, I knew I had to do better. So I searched the internet for “Mexican romantic comedy” and came across the bilingual 2017 offering “Everybody Loves Somebody,” starring Karla Souza, best known to U.S. audiences as one of the law students in ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder.” It was anodyne, but charming and sweet and occasionally even funny. It felt at least a little like a throwback to the long-ago era when Meg Ryan owned the nation’s heart, the more recent era when Reese Witherspoon was falling in and out of love at Harvard Law School and rekindling an old flame in rural Alabama rather than covering up a murder in Monterey, California, 1 and that era just a few years ago when Emma Stone still did comedy. I miss those eras!
“Everybody Loves Somebody” turns out to be part of a new era of Mexican-American comedies — some romantic, some less so — that exploit their border-straddling appeal to make the numbers work. It played only briefly in just 333 theaters in the U.S., and grossed less than $2 million here. But in Mexico it opened at No. 3 at the box office and grossed more than $4 million. That combined take wasn’t bad for a movie that only cost an estimated $2 million to make (“Trainwreck” cost $30 million).
The most successful romantic comedy in the U.S.-Canada market so far this year follows a similar model on a grander scale. “Overboard” is a gender-switched remake of the modest 1987 hit of the same name, with American actress Anna Faris taking on the role first played by Kurt Russell and Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez replacing Goldie Hawn as the insufferable yacht owner who falls overboard and gets amnesia. About a third of the dialogue is in Spanish.
The movie, filmed in British Columbia, cost a reported $12 million to make and has already grossed (it’s still in theaters) $45 million in the U.S. and Canada and $25 million in Mexico, where it was the box office No. 1 in its opening weekend. The second-most-popular 2018 romantic comedy (there haven’t been a lot to choose from) is another bilingual movie, “Valentina’s Wedding,” which grossed a bit under $3 million in the U.S. and Canada and more than $8 million in Mexico. Last year’s bilingual comedy “How To Be a Latin Lover,” starring “Overboard’s” Derbez alongside Kristen Bell, Salma Hayek, Rob Lowe and Raquel Welch (!), grossed $62 million worldwide. The most successful of the cross-border comedies, Derbez’s 2013 “Instructions Not Included” (which also features Karla Souza in a small role), made $44 million in the U.S., $46 million in Mexico and about $8 million more elsewhere in Latin America — all on a production budget of about $5 million.
I persuaded my wife and son to watch “Instructions Not Included” with me one night last week (for research purposes, you know). This was a mistake. The tale of a feckless Acapulco Lothario who becomes a stuntman single dad in Los Angeles offers occasional chuckles throughout, and a stretch in the middle when it actually starts seeming like an OK movie, but the last 20 minutes are preposterously awful. I cannot complain, though, about the film’s business model, which relied on low production costs, targeted marketing to Hispanic audiences in the U.S. (which costs less than a broader-based effort), and mass appeal in Mexico to make a killing. I imagine that shareholders of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. 2 and Grupo Televisa SAB, the joint owners of Pantelion Films, the production company behind all of the above-mentioned Mexican-American comedies, would agree.
What looks to be this year’s highest-profile romantic comedy, “Crazy Rich Asians,” set to debut in August, could conceivably get a similar boost from Asian-Americans and in East Asian movie markets. The most successful romantic comedy of 2014, “About Last Night,” was a remake of a 1986 Brat Pack-adjacent movie (itself adapted from a 1976 David Mamet play) with a mostly black cast that had broad appeal but also surely benefited from a big turnout from black moviegoers. And while I don’t think last year’s No. 1 in the genre, “The Big Sick,” got much direct box office benefit out of the fact that its star and co-author, comedian Kumail Nanjiani, was born in Pakistan, it did help that it was a labor of love for Nanjiani and his formerly comatose wife and co-author, Emily Gordon, which kept costs down.
So creative border-straddling, enthusiastic minority audiences and low production costs are among the keys to keeping the romantic-comedy movie alive in the U.S. But it seems to me that China could play a role here, too. Consider "How Long Will I Love U," the film that topped the Chinese box office last weekend. The trailer depicts a winsome young man and winsomer young woman from different eras who awake to one another’s consternation in the same bed. They soon discover that they live in the same apartment, but when he opens the door it’s 1999 outside and when she does it’s 2018. A time-travel romantic comedy! In a country where things have changed a ton since 1999! I’d totally be up for watching that.
The success of “How Long Will I Love U,” which grossed $82 million in its first two weeks, is no fluke. Sure, action movies dominate the box office rankings in China just as they do pretty much everywhere. But “The Ex-File 3: The Return of the Exes,” a romantic comedy released at the end of last year, has grossed $306 million — which would be enough to put it in fifth place, behind 1998’s “There’s Something About Mary,” on the all-time U.S.-Canada inflation-adjusted romantic-comedy hit list. Other recent Chinese romantic comedies that would make it into the top 100 on that list (cutoff: $69 million) include “I Belonged to You,” “Finding Mr. Right 2” and “Some Like It Hot” from 2016, “Devil and Angel” from 2015, and “Breakup Buddies” and “The Breakup Guru” from 2014. Studios get a smaller share of the box office take in China than in the U.S., but production costs are lower there, too. Some of these movies must be very profitable.
I would imagine that some of them are also very bad, and as noted, comedy often falls flat in translation. But with the Chinese movie industry able to churn these things out at scale, some will surely be worth the effort for U.S. fans suffering from romantic-comedy withdrawal. 3 They're not super-easy to find, though. Among U.S. streaming services, Netflix Inc., which isn't available in China proper but does have operations in Taiwan and Hong Kong, has shown the most interest in providing them. Several of the comedies listed above have been on Netflix in the past, although I can't find any now. Currently available are "Us and Them," a big box office hit from earlier this year that doesn't appear to be funny but does follow the classic romantic storyline of boy and girl meet cute, lose track of each other for years, then meet again, and "This Is Not What I Expected," a 2017 romantic comedy about a finicky billionaire hotel magnate and a young chef whose food entranced him that didn't make a ton of money but did get positive reviews and win a few awards.
Somehow, even after the "Instructions Not Included" debacle, I was able to persuade my wife to watch “This Is Not What I Expected” with me over the weekend. It was not a winner. Romantic leads Zhou Dongyu and Takeshi Kaneshiro (the Taiwan-raised son of a Japanese dad and a Chinese mom) had little chemistry, the humor was basic slapstick, and by the end we were rooting for her not to end up with him. It was a visually sleek production, though, and the food in particular looked great. Also, there was a very cute dog. So I’m not giving up yet. Bring on “How Long Will I Love U.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Yes, Witherspoon starred in a Nancy Meyers-produced romantic comedy last year, but not a lot of people noticed.
Yeah, the studio is known as Lionsgate, but the Lions and the Gate are separate in the corporate name.
I realize that the Indian film industry also churns out tons of movies that could be termed romantic comedies, and I know there are millions of people outside India who swear by them. But they're so stylistically different from the U.S. genre, what with the characters frequently breaking into song and all, that I don't really think of them as a substitute. Maybe I should.
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