She is a modest college student. He is a dapper billionaire. And their erotic encounters are so explicit and disturbing in the film “Fifty Shades of Grey” that the movie is being protested by anti-violence groups and banned in Malaysia, where the country’s censorship board has called it more like “pornography than a movie.”
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is Hollywood’s only offering on the year’s biggest date night. It may not fit everyone’s idea of what’s romantic, but the movie, based on the hugely popular E.L. James novel, is poised to be the most successful romance film in more than a decade and may revive a genre that had long lost its mojo.
It has been years since sweeping period love stories were reliably churning profits and audiences were clamoring for the next Renée Zellweger or Meg Ryan romantic-comedy. And movie studios have struggled to reinvent the romance genre in a way that can appeal to broad audiences around the world.
The closest thing to a successful romance film last year was “The Fault in Our Stars,” which grossed $124.8 million in the United States, but mainly appealed to younger viewers. More often, romance films have drained finances. In 2013, the Warner Bros. big-budget period romance “The Great Gatsby” barely broke a profit in U.S. theaters. And when it comes to romantic-comedies, the record is worse: of 100 rom-coms released in the past six years, only five films have broken $100 million at the box office. Only the quirky drama “Silver Linings Playbook” in 2012 was a critical and financial success.
The lackluster results have fortified Hollywood’s business template of creating massive multi-part franchises based on comic books, action heroes and young adult adventures. The slates for Disney, Time Warner, Universal and Sony Pictures over the next few years will include few mid-budget romantic films, which are being made by independent production houses and increasingly for television. Pressured by increased competition online and on television, the case for producing romantic films has become harder to make.
“It’s difficult for a studio to justify pouring $40 [million], $50 [million], even $100 million into a film that we call a one-off, a stand-alone film that can’t be franchised and created into a series of movies,” said Tom Nunan, a professor of film studies at UCLA and producer of the movie “Crash.”
Now when Nunan pitches movies to studios, he is asked to talk about “episodes” for the film — borrowing the nomenclature of television — to show how one idea can keep audiences hooked for years.
“But often the cinema experience, especially for romance, is a one-time-only special moment,” he said.
It’s not like romance is totally lost. The most basic story line of romantic art — love found, love lost and recovered — has shaped books and songs. Even current films such as “Spider-Man” and “The Hunger Games” are explorations of romantic relationships.
What’s harder is to get audiences into theaters with the promise of sweeping them off their feet. Hollywood has to mix love stories with lightsabers, raunchy male comedy and splashy special effects to draw a big crowd, producers say. And it’s easier to sell those films in China and other international markets where the cultural idiosyncracies of romance make the genre a harder sell.
Movie sites such as IMDb.com and Fandango categorize Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games” series and even Disney’s “Maleficent” as romantic films.
Lynda Obst, a producer for the rom-com hit “Sleepless in Seattle,” said romantic films are taking new shape. Young-adult-novels-turned-films like “Divergent” and “The Fault in Our Stars” appeal to younger viewers. For older adults, new love stories revolve around biographies such as “The Theory of Everything,” the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s relationship with his Cambridge classmate Jane Wilde.
Obst is also working on a biographical movie with a love story at its center. But the former producer of rom-coms doubts the revival of the films she helped make so popular in the 1990s through 2000s.
She produced “Sleepless in Seattle” in 1993 and “Hope Floats” in 1998, but her last rom-com was “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” in 2003. By then, romantic comedies had peaked, she said. Too many films felt the same, offering tired cliches of the handsome guy meeting the charming girl and their fraught but ultimately successful romance.
In 2005, Judd Apatow brought back funny romances through the lens of guy humor with “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and again with “Knocked Up” in 2007. In 2011, “Bridesmaids,” directed by Paul Feig, introduced a new brand of edgier female rom-com heroines. Comedian Amy Schumer will release the rom-com “Trainwreck” this year.
But those are the exceptions. Few romance films are getting support by the biggest studios.
“Romance is not dead. It’s just not funny anymore,” Obst said. “They became corny, and audiences got wise and cynical. After one or two terrible Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl movies, it was like the industry said the genre was dead.”
Even TV, which is more willing to experiment, has seen its offerings of network romantic comedies, such as “A to Z” and “Manhattan Love Story,” fall flat.
This weekend, “Fifty Shades of Grey” may break the slump. The film has an enormous built-in audience of book fans. The E.L. James novels have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.
In the weeks leading up to its release on Friday, the movie set a new record for ticket pre-sales of an R-rated film, according to Fandango. More than 8 million people have liked the Facebook page for the movie.
Though it is being released on Valentine’s weekend, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s screen adaptation of the novel may be a huge hit for women’s night out too, analysts say.
“Romance is in the eye of the beholder,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst at data research firm Rentrak. “People might debate whether ‘Fifty Shades’ is really a romance, but what it does is give audiences something new and edgier that they haven’t seen before with the very basic elements of romantic tension and flirtation that will appeal to date night audiences and girls night audiences too.”