Thursday, March 17, 2016

ROM-COM Is this Working Title's signature genre?

In this post I highlight a recurrent point that has been made for some years now: the rom-com is DEAD and (box office) buried!

That is based on the lack of major, 'breakthrough' [very wide audience, typically overachieving for its budget] rom-coms in recent years, with the series of Jennifer Aniston flops symbolising this seeming reality. Is this true? Debatable. All genres go in and out of fashion. There is a solid argument that TV is now the home of the rom-com (not least the TV adaptation of About a Boy!).

Working Title are arguably more commonly associated with the genre than any other film production outlet, not just in the UK, but globally. They have had an impressive run of rom-com hits, and it seems unlikely that they will simply fail to add to this list. The upcoming third Bridget Jones flick could well change views on the rom-com's box office potential.

As far back as 1987, WT's 3rd production was a rom-com, albeit one with a social realist style which made minimal impact, Hanif Kreshi's Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (US cinema release only through Cinecom, just $1.2m, no budget figure available; it is also listed as unrated, indicating it didn't get a wide release). Director Stephen Frears had also directed their debut feature, My Beautiful Laundrette, and would go on to direct many more for the company.
The Tall Guy didn't stand too large at the box office...but did bring Richard Curtis into WT

1989 saw the introduction of Richard Curtis, screenwriter of The Tall Guy, a rom-com with a US star (Jeff Goldblum) plus Emma Thompson and Rowan Atkinson. Apparent changes to remove some British references (replacing US actors names in dialogue) and positive reviews didn't save it from box office gloom, a mere $500k and no record of releases elsewhere (straight-to-TV in the UK?). You can visit its blank WT website page here!

Skip ten years and you get the low budget The Matchmaker, set in the Republic of Ireland. Released through Gramercy in the US (taking $3.4m; IMDB also list 233DM [pre-euro!] from a German release), but it appears to have also been straight-to-video. It was rated R, which is relatively rare for WT productions.
IMDB's list of WT productions

In between comes the most significant film in the company's history: Four Weddings and a Funeral. All the familiar WT traits are there: the London/southern England setting; commercial genre; exclusively white, middle-class (and upwards) characters, and an idealised representation of Britain; and most importantly, a major American star. More on this shortly.

After those early/mid-90s global smashes, the late 90s and early noughties saw a slew of WT rom-coms, not all successful but overall a very profitable slate of films, often for relatively little (by US standards and compared to the action films and others they were also producing) cost, these being low to medium budgets (by UK terms they would be high budget; you do well to top £10m with a UK release).

Notting Hill;
High Fidelity (moving a Nick Hornby [About a Boy] novel from London to the US, with Jack Black and John Cusack);
Bridget Jones's Diary;
40 Days and 40 Nights (Josh Hartnett, US set);
About a Boy;
The Guru (with an Asian lead, but Heather Graham the US star, plus a rare female writer/director duo);
The Shape of Things (Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol, another US-set film);
Love Actually (almost uniquely lacking a US star, BUT some of the UK cast have international pull: Keira Knightley, Hugh Grant - international marketing focused on the seasonal, romantic theme while UK marketing billed TEN UK stars);
Shaun of the Dead (a zom-rom-com hybrid!);
Wimbledon (a UK tennis player romances a US player [in England]; Kirsten Dunst);
Rory O'Shea Was Here;
BJD: The Edge of Reason;
quite a line-up!

MORE would follow:
2008: Definitely, Maybe (Ryan Reynolds, Rachel Weisz; US-set)
Wild Child (Emma Roberts)
[NOT a rom-com but notable as a more male-targeted comedy: 2009's Richard Curtis written/directed The Boat That Rocked aka Pirate Radio for international markets)

2013: I Give It a Year (no real stars!)
About Time (Richard Curtis written/directed; Rachel McAdams + Domnhall Gleeson and Bill Nighy)

2015: romantic drama We Are Your Friends (a huge flop!!!) [IMDB; ratings; companies; websites/social media; BoxOfficeMojo; The-Numbers; Wiki;]

Very many of the others were also primarily targeted at a female audience; romance was a common element in many of the non-rom-coms too. With the likes of Thirteen they showed they could still produce controversial social realist drama - 18-rated in the UK, it is the sort of film you could more easily associate with Warp.

A six-week shoot on a £2.8m budget, its box office take was stunning: $246m! This was the first of many to be written by Richard Curtis, with co-star High Grant (though the US star Andie Macdowell dominated the marketing imagery), and would help lead to Universal buying out Polygram, seeing WT's funding levels soar alongside much improved international distribution. Gramercy handled this film, but Universal and subsidiaries like StudioCanal would be more common in coming years.

It remains relatively unusual in being critically acclaimed; most rom-coms would struggle for favourable reviews from heavyweight reviewers. 20+ years on, it retains its charm, and is a very smart piece of commercial film-making, putting aside the issues with the stereotypes it pushes.
Roger Ebert was amongst those who gave it a big thumbs up:

That charm is in large part down to its low budget:

SOURCE: MentalFloss.
It very nearly all went wrong in the US (just like BJD until that novelty jumper!):
20 years on, Curtis reflected on the movie's astonishing success in an in-depth Guardian interview.
A lengthy Atlantic analysis argues it is actually subversive and COUNTERtypical:

MentalFloss 15 interesting facts;
Guardian: Curtis on 4Weds 20 years on
Atlantic - a detailed analysis of the film as subversive and COUNTERtypical;

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