How to Build a Wildly Popular Movie Romance

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Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, which is very good news indeed for the makers of The Notebook, Sleepless in Seattle, Pretty Woman, and the many other romantic perennials that get queued up, purchased, and downloaded every year around this time. But what, exactly, is the magic ingredient that makes for a classic romantic movie — one that entertains, enlightens, and (most vital to that ancillary-motivated industry) brings you back, year after year? In theory, you should look to your heart for the answer, but to hell with that; I’m looking at the data.

Said data comes from three sources, designed to poll romantic films not for their quality, but for their popularity. So first, these are the ten highest-grossing romantic comedies of all time, according to Box Office Mojo:

  1. My Big Fat Greek Wedding ($241 million)
  2. What Women Want ($182 million)
  3. Hitch ($179 million)
  4. Pretty Woman ($178 million)
  5. There’s Something About Mary ($176 million)
  6. The Proposal ($163 million)
  7. Sex and the City ($152 million)
  8. Runaway Bride ($152 million)
  9. Knocked Up ($148 million)
  10. As Good As It Gets ($148 million)

A few observations:

  • If you put a gun to my head, I’d never have guessed that this list would have more Katherine Heigl than Meg Ryan. (She doesn’t appear until #16, Sleepless in Seattle).
  • The Proposal is one of those movies that I’d literally forgotten even existed, much less that it was so popular — both in theaters and after (it was on one of Netflix’s few published top-ten-rentals-of-all-time lists).
  • Remember when nutjob, hate-spewing Mel Gibson was a credible romantic leading man? It wasn’t that long ago!

The highest-grossing romantic dramas, according to Box Office Mojo:

  1. Titanic ($658 million)
  2. Ghost ($217 million)
  3. Pearl Harbor ($198 million)
  4. Jerry Maguire ($152 million)
  5. The Great Gatsby ($144 million)
  6. An Officer and a Gentleman ($129 million)
  7. The Vow ($125 million)
  8. The Fault in Our Stars ($124 million)
  9. The Bodyguard ($122 million)
  10. Indecent Proposal ($106 million)
  • We talk plenty of shit about Pearl Harbor, but that is an obscene amount of money, and a reminder of exactly how strong that Titanic mojo still was around ’01.
  • Not sure why they’ve got Jerry Maguire pegged as a drama and not a comedy, but there you go.
  • The Vow is the Proposal of this list. Who knew? (No exaggeration: I had to IMDb that one to remind myself which generic vanilla white-people romance movie that was. In case you’re wondering, it’s the one where Rachel McAdams has amnesia.)
  • FYI, The Notebook was #14.

Now, these numbers aren’t adjusted for inflation, so they naturally skew more recent — but that’s probably for the best, as our aim here is to think like Hollywood does, to reverse-engineer movie romances, and God knows those dudes (and, sadly, they’re mostly dudes) wouldn’t dare think about a movie more than a couple of years old. But, just for argument’s sake and a bit of that homage flavor, here are the highest-ranking romances in the IMDb Top 250.

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life (#24)
  2. Life is Beautiful (#29)
  3. City Lights (#32)
  4. Casablanca (#33)
  5. Amelie (#74)
  6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (#95)
  7. Singin’ in the Rain (#97)
  8. The Apartment (#105)
  9. It Happened One Night (#146)
  10. Gone With the Wind (#160)

So. Let’s look at these 30 films, crunch some numbers, and draw some conclusions:

  • 30 films (100%) concern the relationships of straight people.
  • 28 films (93%) concern the relationships of white people. (27, or 90%, if you count the key secondary relationship in Jerry Maguire.)
  • 22 films (73%) feature what could be best described as a “happy ending.”
  • 19 films (63%) feature a boy meeting a girl, or vice versa.
  • Seven films (23%) feature a couple that initially hates each other, but wouldn’t ya know, those crazy kids end up loving each other.
  • Three films (10%) feature Cuba Gooding Jr. in a supporting role.
  • Three films (10%) are based on books, less than the number of films that are set during an actual historical tragedy (four films, 13%).
  • Four films (13%) feature either Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Richard Gere, or Julia Roberts.
  • One film (3%) is in 3D.

And thus, with that data in hand, I have put together this perfect, foolproof, guaranteed-sale big-time Hollywood romantic movie. DON’T EVEN TRY TO STEAL IT:

May, 1937. On the final flight of the LZ 129 Hindenburg, four Americans meet. Two (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) are immediately drawn to each other and embark on a passionate affair. Their two friends (played by Richard Gere and Julia Roberts) dislike each other immensely, but develop a reluctant attraction that blossoms into romance over the course of the three-day journey. Just as these two relationships are coming to a head, the Hindenburg attempts to land in Lakehurst, New Jersey, where it bursts into 3D, CG flames. However, our heroes are saved by a brave crewman (Cuba Gooding Jr.), escape the burning airship, have animalistic survivor sex, wed, and live happily ever after. (Copyright 2015 by Jason Bailey, all rights reserved.)