Readers join the thread:
I am a former studio film executive. A romantic comedy is one of the most, if not the most, difficult script to write. When a good one comes along, and it happens very rarely, the studios go into a feeding frenzy. A good romantic comedy is cheap to make and its return on investment ratio is much higher than most genres. If you are a young screenwriter with no connections writing on spec, throw away your action script and write a good, original romantic comedy. You probably will not succeed at it – the premise is that they are really hard to write well – but if you do, you will have suitors.
Your post on the supposedly insidious effect the growth of the Chinese film market has had on the American romantic comedy would be a great piece of alarmist culture-bait if only it had a shred of truth to it. The simple fact is that the Chinese market embraced an enormous romcom hit, Finding Mr. Right [trailer above], only two years ago. It was atop the box office for four weeks in China and made well over $80 million – a hit by anyone’s standards.
The film is no masterpiece, but then many of the romantic comedies so lamented by the writers you quote weren’t such great shakes either.
Ironically, the movie explicitly references Sleepless in Seattle as it dealt with birth tourism – the trend of wealthy Chinese women to have their children in the U.S. to secure a coveted American passport. It also touched on issues of materialism and corruption in Chinese in a lighthearted but pretty direct fashion.
Part of the problem with the explosion of online film blogging is that many of the people writing about movies don’t have much knowledge of actual industry practices, especially foreign-market practices. That leads to writing that basically relies on cultural stereotypes (“Oh, the Chinese, they don’t laugh at the same things we do – they’re foreign.”) or what the writers pick up on a jaunt or two to an international film festival. Nor do they really wish for the return of such middlebrow, middle-class genres like the romantic comedy (or the straight drama – which has almost entirely migrated to cable television), they’re much more compelled by art house fare and the chance to denounce tentpole pictures like the latest Transformers movie).
No, what’s really killed the romantic comedy is the death of general audience film critic in the mode of Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael (who was never a fan of the romcom form, but certainly of many of the performers in the films themselves), which is tied to the crisis in print publishing. There are no more tastemakers for those audiences, so they’ve scattered. What’s left is a critical wasteland where virtually anyone can assert anything without fear of being read critically. Want to prompt some mouse clicks? Here’s a piece on how those Chinese don’t like romance – or laughter.
Update from a reader:
Your reader’s response to O’Brien’s article misses the point of the argument. It is not that Chinese dislike romance or comedy, rather that there is a translation problem. The more reliant on word play and cultural specific jokes don’t play well. If a New York RomCom was to make an Eliot Spitzer joke, Americans, more or less, would understand the joke and Chinese would probably have problems with it. This of course works both ways; Americans could not understand a joke that used Xi Jinping from a Chinese movie (if that was aloud). O’Brien isn’t arguing that foreign people don’t laugh, rather that the nuance of language, its subtle gibes, its turn of the phrases, its reference points are hard to translate, while big thing goes boom is an easy translation. No one has ever gone to see a Michael Bay film because of the dialogue … in fact language that is lost in translation probably makes them better films.