5941446453_0e33e00b81_bIf I’m tempted to say “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” does it mean I’m getting old?

Browse the listings for your local multiplex. Chances are, you’ll find superheroes, animated family films, horror, action/adventure, maybe a particularly vulgar ‘boys’ night out’ comedy. But, the last few years, there’s been something missing. What happened to the chick flick? The “meet cute”? The rom-com?

Personally, I blame it on Nora Ephron’s untimely death.

Really. Between When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and You’ve Got Mail (1998), Ephron was the undisputed romantic comedy queen. Her last movie, 2009’s Julie and Julia, revolved around not one but two romances (well, three if you count the entire film’s love affair with French cuisine—ooh la la!).

There were other greats from those years too. Who can forget Moonstruck (1987), Crossing Delancey (1988), or some 15 years later, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)? These were clever constructs, pitting true love against myriad social, ethnic and—especially—familial obstacles. But, after 90 minutes or so, all the Romeos got their Juliets. We never doubted there’d be a happy ending; we were just pleased to go along for the ride.

It’s like a glass of white wine, a bubble bath, or a piece of chocolate. Sometimes you just want to go to the movies and feel good.

I may have mentioned the phrase with some wistful affection earlier, but “chick flick” is more often used as a pejorative. Industry artistes are quick to dismiss rom-coms; they are, by their nature, formula-driven. But, c’mon, so are action/adventure, horror, family, and all other genres. Regardless of the type of movie, it’s good writing, inspired directing, and fine acting that raise them up. Without these things, a time-tested, winning formula becomes mediocre, even when the movies have big stars attached to them like Sandra Bullock, Katherine Heigl, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kate Hudson, Rachel McAdams. A few bad ones, and the industry creates instant mythology: “The rom-com is dead.”

Of course, there’s math involved. Hollywood doesn’t have much confidence in women’s movies as profit machines. Last year’s The Five-Year Engagement cost $30 million, but earned $29 million. The Big Wedding cost $35 million, but only brought in $22 million. Romantic comedies cost much less to make than blockbuster action movies. You would think the lower pricetag would mean a lesser risk. The studios, however, seem to shoot for the stars financially. They’d rather spend hundreds of millions for the chance to reap hundreds of millions more.

At Women’s Voices for Change, we often bemoan the scarcity of movies made by women. Ephron was an unusual success story. Ironically, as such she may have made it difficult for younger women to break in. It’s a strange but pervasive sort of discrimination. Friends of mine who are black actors complain that the roles are so few and far between that a small handful of actors get cast over and over, leaving most unemployed (a major movie that needs “a Denzel Washington type” can probably get Denzel Washington himself; a less experienced actor who might suit the same role doesn’t get a chance). I can imagine studio heads saying “We’ll do one major rom-com this year. Is Nora available?” Then, Ms. Ephron (or in my earlier example, Mr. Washington) is held up as a symbol of opportunity. With this phenomenon in mind, I worry that, faced with accusations of sexism, the industry can point to Best Director Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow. But it may take another 75 years for another woman to win.

So, what’s happened to romance? There are financial issues. There’s Hollywood’s reluctance to work with women. And, let’s face it, things have changed. Young people (a major audience for the rom-coms of yesteryear) don’t seem to believe in love; they’re all about hookups and sexting. Fewer actual dates mean fewer date nights at the movies.

If you believe that art imitates life, the trend in films is no big surprise. These days, sex comes before love, if love is in the picture at all. Gone is the innuendo, the tension, the flirting. Going back to my Ephron list, two of her most famous movies had a happy ending before its characters had even gotten to second base. Meanwhile, the sex in When Harry Met Sally is an awkward modern-day mistake and it takes nearly a third of the movie for the characters to untangle it all and come back together. A modern audience would react with disbelief and impatience. Especially when compared with more recent films like Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached.

So where do we, as thinking, feeling, grownup women, turn for romance?

1. We can look for love in all the new places

It’s definitely saying something when the most romantic movie of the year so far is Her. It’s a new take on a classic pattern: boy meets operating system, boy loves operating system, boy loses operating system. (I think I may be the only person who found it more chilling than romantic.) There are love stories about vampires (the Twilight series), young lovers caught in dystopian epics (The Hunger Games and the upcoming Divergence). There are amnesiacs and people with supernatural powers (50 First Dates, The Time Traveler’s Wife). There are tragic outcast couples (Brokeback Mountain). And lately, there have been a number of love stories centering around older women (I Am Love, It’s Complicated, Enough Said). Not only can we relate to these; we may be the only audience that still wants them.

2. We can go back to a kinder, gentler, more romantic time

Modern characters may be skeptical, but fill a movie with hoop skirts and manor houses (or flappers and gin) and love blossoms before you can say “Please pass the tea, old sport.” Female audiences starving for romance can still find it in period dramas, although they are not released as often or as widely as the blockbusters. Titanic, released at the end of the 20th century, was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won 11,  including Best Picture. It has grossed over $2.1 billion. (Yes, that’s billion with a B—who says romance doesn’t sell?) Favorites from this century include Pride & Prejudice (2005), Bright Star (2009), Jane Eyre (2011), Gatsby (2013), and two new ones: Winter’s Tale (releasing today), and Summer in February, which has not one but two swoon-worthy leads: Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens and Mamma Mia’s Dominic Cooper. Alas, neither film has had great reviews, but for the real romantic, they’re still a better option than Bridesmaids 2.

3. We can travel to distant lands

They say love knows no bounds. While the American movie industry shies away from romance, other countries embrace it. Foreign films, which have always added a delicious veneer of exotica (and often erotica) to the genre, are still serving up love stories. They’re often more complicated, but worth the effort. The heart-warming, low-budget, semi-autobiographical Once (2007) reinvented the movie musical (and went on to become a successful Broadway show). In the past year, Gloria pronounced that love is worth pursuing after a certain age, while Blue is The Warmest Color succeeded at marrying (very) explicit sex and (very) believable love. Meanwhile, Girl on a Bicycle, releasing this week, appears to be exactly the kind of delightful rom-com we’ve been missing.

4. We can hold out for true love

Even now, every few years, a real romance breaks through. Many WVFC readers have mentioned The Notebook (2004) as a favorite. Based on the bestselling novel by Nicholas Sparks, the movie focuses on two couples: an elderly man reading to a woman suffering from dementia, and a young couple from the 40s, kept apart (for a time at least) by disapproving parents. I’d say “spoiler alert” at this point, but really, if you can’t figure out that these two couples are . . . one in the same—gasp!—you don’t deserve to call yourself a romantic movie fan. Other less conventional titles include Love Actually (2003), an ensemble piece with interrelated tales of all types of love, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), a wild ride that examines the relationship between love and memory.

5. Or, worst case scenario, we can always find romance at home

Sometimes love arrives in a heart-shaped box (or a little blue one with a white satin ribbon). At other times, you can find it in more contemporary packaging: DVDs, video on demand, Netflix. Pass the remote, the popcorn, and the Kleenex. From the golden age of the silver screen (maybe a little Fred Astaire, followed by a classic like Gone With the Wind or Casablanca), to Ephron-era rom-coms, to more modern takes, you can get swept away in the comfort of your own home.

And we may have to. Until, that is, all those big men in Hollywood wake up and realize that women are their audience too.

TOMORROW: Twentieth-century love or twenty-first-century love? Stay tuned for the results of our Romantic Movie Survey, which pinpoints the romantic films most beloved by our readers. Then you can take our critic’s Suggestion No. 5—choose the one you’re in the mood for, then find romance at home.

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