Netflix, Nancy Meyers and the state of the rom-com

5 min read

On paper, Nancy Meyers’ ambitious in-the-works Netflix movie seemed to have all the ingredients of a classic Hollywood romantic comedy.

A semi-autobiographical plot about a filmmaking duo falling in and out of love; A-listers, including Scarlett Johansson, expected to star; and Meyers herself, known for box-office hits including “The Holiday” and “Something’s Gotta Give.”

But the film’s ample budget — itself a throwback to the peak of the genre’s commercial powers in the ‘90s and 2000s — proved too much for Netflix. The film was reportedly set to cost well more than $100 million to produce, a scale normally seen in action spectacles, not meet-cutes.

Netflix backed out of the project Tuesday, according to people familiar with the matter, after a disagreement over the budget between the filmmakers and the streaming giant became public. Puck News reported that Meyers’ team wanted a $150-million budget, while Netflix wouldn’t spend more than around $130 million. A person close to the production disputed the reported numbers but declined to give specific figures.

Representatives for Netflix and Meyers declined to comment.

The decision comes as streaming services, including Netflix, become more cautious with their content spending to satisfy investor pressure to increase profits. Streamers have recently canceled previously renewed shows , pulled out of films and cut jobs to save money.

With Netflix pulling out, Meyers’ movie, titled “Paris Paramount,” will be shopped to other studios, according to one of the people familiar with the situation, who was not authorized to comment. But it’s not clear what company, if any, would pick up a project with those costs.

“This was not just a huge number — it was an insane, unthinkable, unrealistic sum,” said Stephen Galloway, dean of Chapman University’s film school. “There’s a train that starts moving forward and people keep jumping on, and at some point you start saying, ‘Hold on, the freight is too much for this train to bear.’”

On Thursday, at least one prospective buyer emerged — Warner Bros. is in exploratory talks to pick up the film, according to two people familiar with the matter who declined to be named. The news was first reported by the Hollywood Reporter.

During the heyday of the studio romantic comedy, Meyers established herself as one of the biggest brand names in the genre and one of the most powerful female directors in the industry.

After making her successful directorial debut with 1998’s “The Parent Trap” (starring Lindsay Lohan), Meyers went on to make such hits as “The Holiday” and “It’s Complicated,” often centered on the romantic entanglements (and impeccably furnished homes) of mature, affluent professional women.

Those films benefited from their strong appeal to an underserved older, female audience. At the time of its release in 2000, Meyers’ “What Women Want” was the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, taking in $182 million domestically.

Meyers remains a magnet for stars, who are drawn to her sharp dialogue, swoon-inducing settings and exacting devotion to getting the smallest details on her films just right. “The most important thing is that I get what I feel the movie needs, and I’m the one in the moment who has been entrusted with the job of getting the movie to work,” Meyers told The Times in 2009.

But the level of established star power Meyers is accustomed to comes at a steep price. “Something’s Gotta Give,” starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, cost an estimated $80 million to produce, after “What Women Want” (Mel Gibson opposite Helen Hunt) cost $70 million.

And today’s theatrical landscape is far less hospitable to the romantic comedy. Of the 100 top-grossing rom-coms at the domestic box office, only five were released during the last decade, according to Box Office Mojo. (The genre’s all-time biggest non-inflation-adjusted hit, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” came out more than 20 years ago.)

Last year’s Jennifer Lopez-Owen Wilson film “Marry Me,” released simultaneously in theaters and on Peacock, took in just $22.5 million at the domestic box office, while Universal’s “Bros,” centered on two commitment-phobic gay men, bombed with $14.8 million.

October’s “Ticket to Paradise,” starring seasoned rom-com veterans Julia Roberts and George Clooney, fared better, earning a respectable $168 million worldwide, but still lagged far behind the blockbusters that Roberts and Clooney each regularly made in earlier decades.

“We’re not in a rom-com-friendly era,” Galloway said. “I don’t know if it’s because there’s less naivete or optimism or because people swipe Tinder and that’s their idea of a date. But for whatever reason, romance doesn’t have quite the same social appeal.”

Meyers herself hasn’t directed a film since 2015’s workplace dramedy “The Intern,” starring Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro, which grossed $195 million globally. That film carried a $35-million budget, which is at the high end of what a typical romantic comedy now costs. “Crazy Rich Asians,” a massively profitable hit in 2018, cost just $30 million.

With studios placing fewer bets on midbudget films, romantic comedy found a new outlet on streaming services. Netflix showed a particularly robust appetite for the genre, cranking out inexpensive rom-coms like “The Kissing Booth” and “Set It Up” that struck a chord with younger viewers.

More recently, Netflix released “Your Place or Mine,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher, and “You People,” with Jonah Hill, Lauren London and Eddie Murphy — projects that would have been box office slam dunks in an earlier era. They were the top two streaming movie premieres for romantic comedies during the past six months, according to Samba TV.

“While broadly drawing in strong audiences, millennial parents, and women in particular, tend to turn out for the escapist romantic comedies more than any other group,” said Dallas Lawrence, senior vice president of Samba TV in a statement. “Overall, star power appears to be critical to drawing in audiences.”

But today’s successful streaming rom-coms often feature a younger generation of actors who may not be household names, and thus aren’t as expensive.

“Set it Up” starred Zoey Deutch and a pre-”Top Gun: Maverick” Glen Powell, alongside the more seasoned Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs. “Kissing Booth” stars Joey King, Jacob Elordi and Joel Courtney were little-known before the Netflix smash.

The streamer continues to invest in the rom-com space, with upcoming movies “A Tourist’s Guide to Love” set for April 21 and “The Perfect Find” on June 23. Netflix executives have long expressed the importance of having a mix of different types of content on the platform to satisfy its diverse customer base.

“There is a stronger valuation on average for romance films on streaming compared to theatrical releases when taking into account revenue generated per film compared to production budget,” said Julia Alexander, director of strategy at Parrot Analytics in an emailed statement. “As companies attempt to better their portfolio optimization, matching the right romantic comedy at the right budget to the right streaming service is crucial.”

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