Local audiences have mostly had a ‘it’s not me, it’s you’ relationship with Australian rom-coms. New movie Alex and Eve hopes to change all that.
22 Oct 2014 - 2:21 PM  UPDATED 22 Oct 2014 - 3:26 PM

Rom-coms are a bit of a rarity in Australia and successful Australian-made examples don’t easily spring to mind, although some of the top 10 local hits of all time have romance and comedy, like Crocodile Dundee, Strictly Ballroom, and Red Dog.

Director Peter Andrikidis suggests that local filmmakers think of rom-coms with derision, but he doesn’t: by year end, he’ll have finished Alex and Eve, a rom-com adapted from a stage play that stars Richard Brancatisano as a Greek Orthodox man and Andrea Demetriades as a Lebanese Muslim.

In a rom-com of the purest kind, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl — or vice versa — and the journey is littered with obstacles. Andrikidis is using clash of culture as an obstacle and a source of comedy. To fulfill the romantic requirements of the genre, Demetriades was tested with eight males to see where the natural chemistry lay. She met Brancatisano on Skype because he was working in LA, but the chemistry was evident. “You can’t write that,” says Andrikidis.

“Initially, it was more of a rom-com than it is now because as we kept going, it became more about the families and that became the template for the film,” he says. “In that way, it has similarities to Bend It Like Beckham and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Andrikidis got married in both a Greek Orthodox and a Presbyterian church, and of the dozens of television projects that he’s had a hand in, his favourite is SBS series East West 101, perhaps the best representation of urban Australian multiculturalism in the history of television drama. So this is territory he knows well.

“My interest is in saying something about our culture,” he says. “Immigrant stories are waiting to be told but it’s gone backwards since East West 101.”

The fault's not in our stars

“Conventional wisdom backed by box office data suggests that rom-coms are particularly star-driven vehicles,” says Seph McKenna, head of Australian production at Roadshow Films, which recently released the rom-coms Goddess (Laura Michelle Kelly, Ronan Keating) and Any Questions for Ben? (Josh Lawson, Rachael Taylor). “In theory, if Chris/Luke Hemsworth and Margot Robbie signed up for an Australia-produced rom-com, it would have a shot at being that mainstream Aussie rom-com.”

Megan Simpson Huberman, who made the 1996 Australia rom-com Dating the Enemy with Claudia Karvan and Guy Pearce (pictured below), says the genre commonly appeals to mainstream audiences, and generally it is necessary to have a mainstream actor. (Karvan, who was also in the rom-com Paperback Hero with Hugh Jackman, chose not to be interviewed for this article.)

“At a [Hollywood] studio level you can attract stars with a pay cheque or an independent producer [with limited finance] can attract them with an innovative artistically challenging script, which gives them the chance to win critical acclaim and awards.”

Kate Erbland from Vanity Fair convincingly argues well that independent producers have taken the rom-com baton from the studios. The poster child of this theory, (500) Days of Summer, grossed nearly $70 million worldwide and came in at 134 in this list of the biggest ever hit rom-coms in North America, a massive success considering its $8.6 million budget. It is true that Summer was independently made but it was later acquired by Fox Searchlight Pictures, which has a formidable reputation for jumping on films made outside the studio system and turning them into hits with the help of marketing.

Hollywood money and expertise has a massive impact on the success of films at the production stage too. Australia makes mainstream films when backed by a big bucket of US cash – think The Great Gatsby – but remove that cash and it is a considerably more difficult production and marketing equation. Choosing $10 million as Australia’s mainstream benchmark, Red Dog, Mao’s Last Dancer, The Sapphires, which has some rom-com characteristics, and Tomorrow, When The War Began are our independent mainstream hits of the last decade. That said, very few independent and/or arthouse films – rom-coms or not, Australian or otherwise – are doing well in Australian cinemas. In other words, if mainstream appeal is a necessary characteristic of rom-coms, Hollywood is the best place for them to be made. But has Hollywood really abandoned them?

It's complicated

“The studios themselves are best to comment on what they do but I’d say they make a lot less movies [generally] and bigger event-type films that tend to be either male skewed or tentpole blockbusters that play across a number of audiences,” says Peter Cody, the person ultimately responsible for what screens in Event Cinemas.  

Would you like to see more rom-coms? “Absolutely I would. One of my bugbears is that Hollywood and filmmakers forget that 50 percent of the population is female. We hear all the time that there’s not much on. We would love to see a broader range of films all year round.” (For the record, his other key bugbear is this: “We have an aging population with a lot of disposable income, generous superannuation policies and time on their hands and films for them are also few and far between.”)

Quizzed further he says the primary rom-com audience is women, although men might go if pressed. The assumption that the genre is the domain of women is widespread.

“Rom-coms can talk in a very accessible way about something that’s extremely important: finding a life partner, love and contentment; and the best can really move you and say something powerful,” says Simpson Huberman, who professes to love rom-coms. After considering whether they are in the doldrums she adds: “Perhaps dating and finding a life partner is not a laughing matter at the moment.”

She says people 40-plus are much easier to get into cinemas than younger people right now and names Something’s Gotta Give (Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton) and It’s Complicated (Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin; pictured below) as examples of successful rom-coms directed by (in each case, Nancy Meyers) and aimed at mature women.

“Both offered their demographic a theme that spoke to them – "it's never too late" – and clear and enjoyable wish fulfillment. Both featured mature women who were financially secure and lived in gorgeous settings and went from lonely to being pursued by two men… They were socially relevant to today as they were not about first love but about women re-partnering in later life.”

The real deal

If, as generally believed, women are the key decision makers regarding cinema going, and given older Australians are most loyal to local film, aren’t Australian-made rom-coms a good business proposition then? Well, maybe, but there still remains the disinterest of filmmakers, which leads me to this niggling question: Is there anything about Australia’s culture that makes us averse to homegrown rom-coms? Might we be too cynical for (our own) schmaltz, too (negatively) susceptible to soppiness?

“Yes, I do think there is a low tolerance for soppiness but I think that's a good thing,” says Peter Templeman, writer/director of recent Australian rom-com Not Suitable for Children (Ryan Kwanten, Sarah Snook). “If you're going to portray some big emotions in film or TV, I think many of us prefer our storytellers to be vigilant with the truth and to minimise the overplaying of those sensitive moments.”

Peter Andrikidis mentioned fast pacing and “huge musical moments when people go crazy” when discussing how he was realising his mainstream intentions for Alex and Eve – and also by grounding the film in reality.

“As long as you get the sense of reality right, the audience will come with you.”

One thing on his side is that My Big Fat Greek Wedding was independently made, was also adapted from a play by people close to its cross-cultural themes, and did not have A-list stars – and it sold $428 million worth of tickets to become the biggest rom-com hit worldwide.