In hindsight, the 2010 feature film “How Do You Know,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd, stands as a turning point in the American romantic comedy genre. In the past, romantic comedies could secure hefty budgets, often surpassing $80 million, or even reaching $100 million, particularly when featuring top-tier casts. However, the underperformance of “How Do You Know,” despite its star-studded ensemble, including Jack Nicholson in his final role, prompted studios to exercise caution when allocating substantial resources to these movies. Consequently, the romantic comedy genre faced financial constraints and gradually vanished from the cinema screens by 2016. “How Do You Know” became the catalyst that steered studios toward a strategy centered on tentpole films and established brand names rather than relying solely on star power.
While “How Do You Know” played a pivotal role in the genre’s decline, its box office failure can be attributed to a multitude of factors beyond its classification as a romantic comedy. Ironically, many elements contributing to its downfall would resurface in the box office disappointments of 2010s action blockbusters, such as “The Lone Ranger” and “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” from the very studios that had become wary of romantic comedies. It is a poignant reminder that despite changing times, some aspects of the industry remain constant.
The Budget of “How Do You Know”
Historically, successful romantic comedies did not always necessitate extravagant budgets. For instance, “Pretty Woman” in 1990 cost a mere $14 million to produce, while “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” an indie project, was made with just $5 million. However, as the 2000s unfolded, the costs of these films began to escalate. By 2002, films like “Two Weeks Notice” and “Leatherheads” demanded budgets of $60 million and $58 million, respectively. “It’s Complicated” rounded out the 2000s with an $85 million budget. The involvement of big-name stars like Sandra Bullock or Meryl Streep was a contributing factor to the rising expenses, as securing their talents came at a premium.
However, even in this context, the budget for “How Do You Know” was undeniably extravagant. With a production cost of $120 million, the film notably allocated $50 million solely for securing its director, James L. Brooks, and its four leading stars: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, and Jack Nicholson. Despite these substantial investments in star power, an additional $70 million was spent on other aspects of the movie. While production costs reportedly increased during shooting due to reshoots and delays, the initial budget of “How Do You Know” remains staggering.
Industry standards typically suggest that a movie needs to gross approximately twice its budget worldwide to achieve profitability. This would have required “How Do You Know” to earn around $300 million globally to break even. A look at the box office track record of the individuals associated with the film, including James L. Brooks, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson, reveals that their previous works had not consistently achieved such high box office numbers for romantic comedies.
Furthermore, at the time of its release, only ten romantic comedies in history had surpassed $300 million worldwide. These films, such as “Pretty Woman” and “There’s Something About Mary,” had become cultural phenomena. Thus, Sony/Columbia Pictures’ decision to invest $120 million in “How Do You Know” was a perplexing and risky move, as the film’s budget alone doomed it to struggle at the box office. Halving the budget would have provided a more realistic path to profitability, but the film’s lavish finances ultimately sealed its box office fate.
Other Factors Contributing to the Box Office Failure
Upon revisiting the trailer for “How Do You Know” over a decade after its release, one is struck by how removed the characters are from everyday reality. Romantic comedies are designed to offer wish-fulfillment fantasies and an escape from the ordinary. Successful rom-coms often feature protagonists from humble backgrounds who find themselves in quirky, relatable situations. Think of films like “Notting Hill,” where an ordinary man falls in love with a movie star, or “Pretty Woman,” where a cash-strapped sex worker finds love. These relatable dynamics resonate with audiences, allowing them to immerse themselves in the romantic fantasy.
In stark contrast, “How Do You Know” revolves around a softball player, played by Reese Witherspoon, who finds herself in a love triangle with a wealthy pitcher, portrayed by Owen Wilson, and an executive, played by Paul Rudd, from an affluent family. The film lacks the contrasting dynamics of class or occupation that typically engage viewers, and the characters’ jobs are not unique enough to generate curiosity. Instead, everyone in the film is financially secure and holds jobs that many viewers cannot relate to. This departure from the relatable, everyday narratives that characterize successful rom-coms alienated audiences.
Furthermore, the film’s release in the aftermath of the 2008 economic recession was ill-timed. Moviegoers were not inclined to engage with narratives centered on wealthy characters living in an economic bubble. Even successful comedies from 2009 and 2010, like “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “Grown Ups,” tended to focus on working-class individuals or well-to-do characters navigating suburban settings. The glossy urban backdrop of “How Do You Know” and its emphasis on corporate issues failed to strike a chord with audiences in 2010.
Ultimately, “How Do You Know” struggled not only because of its high budget but also because it lacked the relatability and entertainment value that successful rom-coms offer. The fallout from the film was significant, impacting the careers of its cast and contributing to the scarcity of big-screen romantic comedies in the years that followed. “How Do You Know” serves as a stark reminder of the challenges and risks associated with creating and marketing romantic comedies in the ever-changing landscape of the film industry.