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Hit-hungry Hollywood gambles on litany of 'romaction' flicks

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010; E01

In "Killers," which opened on Friday, Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher play newlyweds on the run from hired assassins, their wedded bliss punctuated by car chases, stunts with trucks and sundry shootouts. Which sounds an awful lot like "The Bounty Hunter," in which Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston played ex-spouses dodging bullets and Tasers and bickering their way back to true love. Which calls to mind "Date Night," featuring Tina Fey and Steve Carell as a couple caroming through Manhattan on a super-charged car chase while avoiding a couple of armed hooligans.

And coming soon: "Knight and Day," starring Cameron Diaz, Tom Cruise, a Ducati motorcycle, several cars and even more guns.

When did romantic comedies go ballistic?

Or was it the action movies that went soft?

As the 2010 movie calendar approaches the midyear mark, Hollywood's latest case of you-got-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter has become explosively, and already monotonously, clear. Action and romance are tying the knot, brought together by a movie industry desperate for product that will appeal not just to one demographic group (say, teenage boys) but two (teenage boys and their girlfriends, sisters or even moms).

One wag has even already named the offspring of this shotgun wedding: "Romaction."

As with most trends in Hollywood, this particular spate of action-spiked rom-coms (or romance-infused action flicks) can be traced to the twin impulses of love and fear: the movie industry's love of a sure thing and its equally strong fear of trying something new. In this case, studio executives are trying to re-create the past success of the 1984 hit "Romancing the Stone" and, more recently, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."

"Knight and Day" producer Steve Pink says he first learned of the trend when he began shopping the script around six years ago. Back then, it was a buddy action comedy.

Chip off the old 'Stone'

"It was [co-producer] Todd Garner who said, 'Studios are looking for that "Romancing the Stone" kind of action-romantic comedy.' I sat there and thought, 'What other ones are out there?' And there really were no other ones."

So Pink and screenwriter Patrick O'Neill set out to re-tool "Knight and Day" as "Romancing the Stone" in the world of espionage, Pink says, creating the character of a young woman whose chance meeting with a mysterious stranger sends her on a chase from equally mysterious assassins.

Pink was happy to make the overhaul. "I've always been a fan of trying to have more than one genre in a movie," he says, adding that combining action and romance "enables anybody who wants to make an action movie to expand the interest of women in their movie by adding a strong woman character, which I think is always really smart in general."

Pink has hit on a new truism in the movie business: Girls are the new teenage boys.

With the success of "Twilight" and its sequels ("New Moon" set a record for biggest opening day box office last year, and "Eclipse" is poised to be the most successful movie of the summer this year), a business model based on comic books and toys for boys now must make room for less testosterone-heavy mega-hits. "If you're ignoring the female audience you're making a humongous mistake right now," says analyst Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office division at Hollywood.com.

It's a teen boy's world

Still, guys under 25 continue to wield disproportionate power in the movie marketplace, according to producer J.C. Spink ("The Hangover"). "What's driving the film business is teenage boys," he says flatly. "Not that they're the only audience, but I think everything is getting tailored more and more to them."

Spink notes that rom-coms -- once thought of as "chick flicks" -- have become increasingly guy-friendly (more porn jokes, fewer makeover scenes), especially with the success of such Judd Apatow movies as "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." "Romantic comedies have gone from being female-driven to being two-handers," he says.

Whether it's a function of boys' movies trying to get female audiences or vice versa, the current romance-action mash-up is just the most recent iteration of the tyranny of demographics that has increasingly come to dominate Hollywood. Gone are the days of general-interest movies that transcended demographics -- "Titanic" was arguably the last one. Even the hugely successful "Avatar" didn't have quite as broad demographic appeal because of its emphasis on science fiction and special effects. Instead, like every other aspect of the culture, cinema has become fragmented, a function of niche interests and increasingly micro-managed audience research.

Thus, not only "Killers" opened this weekend but also "Marmaduke" (a talking-dog movie geared toward kids and families), "Get Him to the Greek" (a comedy starring Jonah Hill and Russell Brand that will presumably appeal to both teenage boys and girls) and "Splice" (a science fiction drama aimed at sci fi and horror fans).

The result are movies that increasingly look as if they've been stamped from the same mold on studio assembly lines. Filmmakers are "getting forced just to make a certain kind of movie more and more every day," said a producer who spoke anonymously to preserve relationships with studios. Movies have become "more a marketing medium than a filmmaking medium. . . . So you start to settle for getting any movie made rather than getting good movies made."

'Like guys in a lab'

Dergarabedian calls the new genre "romaction-comedy" and likens the hybrid to a science experiment. "I imagine movie executives sitting around a conference table like guys in a laboratory, trying to build the perfect box office beast," he says. "They're trying to figure out, 'How do we get the guys to go to a movie with their girlfriends and not feel like they're being dragged to it?' "

If Hollywood lives and dies by tentpole pictures -- the blockbusters that anchor a movie season and earn studios major chunks of revenue -- then the tentpoles' stakes are quadrants: men under 25, women under 25, women over 25 and men over 25. Get two of those cohorts to see your picture, and you've hatched a hit. But Dergarabedian has noticed a trend, with such films as "Mamma Mia!," "Julie and Julia" and the "Sex and the City" films, that women often go to these movies in groups, creating a multiplier effect in their buying power. "If my quadrant is buying four tickets at a time, it becomes a multi-quadrant tier all by itself," he says.

Whether filmmakers are trying to snag guys, girls, both or everyone else, it looks like filmgoers who simply want to watch two people fall in love -- without first falling 20 stories, re-loading an Uzi and dodging an incoming fireball -- may be in for a long wait.

The good news? It will only take one improbable hit to bring the romance back. Remember, it wasn't that long ago that movies about pirates, vampires and wizards would never sell. Until they did.

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