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Comedy is back; Super Mario Bros has proved that laughs are good for a half billion dollars.
But affairs of the heart are still suffering at the movie box office. Love Again is the latest problem, having posted just $2.4 million in opening weekend ticket sales for Sony Pictures, even with a celebrity boost from Celine Dion and Nick Jonas, who appeared alongside stars Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Sam Heughan.
This is beginning to look like something more than a minor mood swing.
I don’t pretend to know why. But signs point toward a near-total rejection of what used to be a box-office staple, in both its comic and its tragic versions: That is, the love story.
As noted, there was a highly unusual gap in the last round of Best Picture nominees—not one romance made the cut. At the same time, Bros, a gay love story from Universal, collapsed coming out of the gate. Magic Mike’s Last Dance, if that really counts as romantic, did just okay over Valentine’s Day, on its way to a modest $26 million in ticket sales, which barely makes this year’s Top Twenty to date. Putting that one aside, the best-selling love story of 2023 appears to be the re-release of Titanic, from 1997—it was good for $15 million this time around.
Last year, the top love story was Ticket to Paradise, which posted about $68.3 million for George Clooney and Julia Roberts, ranking it at Number 27 or so, between Morbius and The Woman King.
Sleepless in Seattle that is not. It’s not even Gnomeo & Juliet.
The best-selling movie love story of 2021 was even farther down the list—that appears to have been West Side Story, at Number 34, according to the Box Office Mojo rankings, with about $28.3 million in sales.
This is remarkable given the powerful historic presence of love in the movies. As recently as 2018, A Star Is Born topped $200 million.
But the last five years have brought little in the way of romance, and the audience isn’t crying for more. According to a March report from the National Association of Theatre Owners, “Romance” ranked last when moviegoers were asked what they wanted to see more of, with just 29 percent checking the love box. When the PSB Insights consulting group surveyed parents for an April report from the Motion Picture Association, it found sex-related matters at the very top of ratings-related concerns, far outstripping worries about violence.
Intimacy, apparently, is more dangerous than guns. It’s as if the audience is developing an aversion to the deepest of human relationships.
Maybe the anti-love trend is rooted in the lockdowns. Maybe the obsession with digital devices has taken its toll. And the #MeToo movement might have something to do with it. Wariness toward love-and-sex runs deeply enough in Movieland that its official gatekeeper, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, has included with its animation exhibit a caution about the fairytale trope of nonconsensual kisses when female protagonists are unconscious, as in Sleeping Beauty.
By year’s end, some new romance—Book Club: The Next Chapter? Asteroid City? Barbie?—might break through. But for the moment, it’s safer to make a horror flick. According to NATO, 42 percent of the audience would like to see more of those.