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Hollywood has it bad for Valentine's Day
13 February 2010 10:01 am
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Bad romantic comedies, like any other poorly produced or plotted film, can happen to anyone, at any time of the year.

But right around February 14, in the weeks leading up to and sometimes even on the very holiday, Hollywood unleashes at least one questionable romantic movie and this year, the onslaught has gotten even worse.

There's Amy Adams' "Leap Year," Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel in "When in Rome." the adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' novel, "Dear John," that made headlines when it ended the reign of "Avatar" at the box office, and a movie about nothing but February 14, "Valentine's Day," which opened on Friday.

"Studios tend to dump their less prestigious movies in the earlier part of the year, no matter what genre," said author and romantic comedy screenwriting instructor Billy Mernit, but after the success of last year's "He's Just Not That Into You," Hollywood said, that worked, so let's do that again.

"This year is the first year that a studio has planted a flag on [Valentine's Day] and developed a movie for that date," Mernit said. "And [the rumor] is that they're already planning a sequel for New Year's."

But creating a holiday-themed film isn't the problem as much as the reality that many of these Valentine's Day-driven films tend to be poor examples of what romantic comedies or romantic dramas can be, critics said.

"'Leap Year' is something where people who are fans of romantic comedies say, are you kidding? This movie could have been 'It Happened One Night,'" Mernit said. "Why are we seeing the same old, same old?"

It's gotten to the point where film critic MaryAnn Johanson is usually skeptical if a movie comes out too close to Valentine's Day.

"Most of them are pretty bad," she said. "I'd be willing to bet that any romantic comedy marketed around Valentine's Day is going to be crap."

"'When in Rome' committed the big crime that most of these movies commit," Johanson said, "making men and women look like idiots." And then in " 'Leap Year,' "Amy Adams' character was such a juvenile idiot, needy and desperate to get married at any cost."

One major complaint about romantic films is that they rely heavily on a formula, making the moviegoer feel as though if they've seen one romantic comedy or drama, they've seen them all.

There's no getting around that, Mernit said, but that doesn't mean moviegoers should be provided with dull movies.

"This is a genre where the audience knows how it will end," he said, "so the burden on the screenwriter is how do you tweak it, and to pay that formula back with interest and find something fresh."

With something like "Dear John," which made $30 million at the box office its first weekend, "it wasn't so much good writing as it was that Nicholas Sparks is already a brand. For once, Hollywood was actually paying attention to tweeners and teens and they got returns. It has nothing to do with the quality of the movie."

"Valentine's Day," which features a large ensemble cast like last year's "He's Just Not That Into You," is little more than a marketing ploy, Johanson said.

"To name a movie after a holiday is extremely calculated," Johanson she said. "Good stories should grow out of interesting characters, instead of checking characters off the list that moviegoers can relate to."

And yet, moviegoers head to the theaters anyway. "He's Just Not That Into You" grossed $90 million domestically and $27 million when it opened the weekend of February 6.

At this point, it's like picking out a Valentine's Day card, said Lucy Fischer, director of the film studies program at the University of Pittsburgh. They tend to come in two options, she said: "cloyingly sweet or stupidly insulting." But still, people buy them.

"People are prodded to buy something for the occasion, and in this case, it's a movie ticket," Fischer said. "It doesn't matter about the quality. What do you on Valentine's Day? You go on a date. And then there are the people who don't have anything to do on Valentine's Day and are depressed -- the holiday serves as a going-out function."

Generally, Mernit said, "people go to romantic comedies to vicariously enjoy courtship and falling in love and passion," and for dollar-minded studio-execs, that means more targeted planning to capitalize on the emotions that are elicited around the holiday.

I'd be willing to bet that any romantic comedy marketed around Valentine's Day is going to be crap.

--MaryAnn Johanson, movie critic

Romance Films
Valentine's Day
As a result, Mernit said, "'Valentine's Day' is a movie is about how a group of disparate people deal with this date -- the expectations and disappointments -- so what could be better than a movie that speaks to what its target audience is actually going through in and around the picture's opening weekend?"

But that kind of one-movie-fits-all approach is exactly what Fischer and Johanson find so offensive.

"It looked to me like the selection is everything but the kitchen sink," Fischer said, ticking off the "types" that appear in the film, like the woman who doesn't have a date, or the teenagers in love, or the older married couple. "It's got about 27 people in it. It's oriented towards every kind of Valentine's consumer," Fischer said.

And while Hollywood has been entrenched in this love affair for years, all the way back to 1999's "Message in a Bottle," Johanson said, it's definitely picked up in the second half of the last decade since the variety of entertainment options have increased.

"There are so many entertainment options now, the way to make it an event is to make it stand out," she said. "It's a way to drag people to the theaters, because if you wanted to watch a movie for Valentine's Day, you could rent it, stream it online, or watch it on your laptop."

Johanson also doubts that the tide of romantic comedies will ease up anytime soon.

"People haven't gotten tired of being expected to buy greeting cards and flowers and candy," she said, "so the movie marketing won't go away either."

By Breeanna Hare, CNN

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