A reader for the Nashville Film Festival screenplay competition, Cheryl Laughlin gophers for indie sets throughout NorCal and performs grass roots marketing for micro-budget documentaries via 20KFilms. Follow Cheryl on Twitter @cheryllaughlin.
As writers, we’ve all heard the nonstop barrage of film genres we should sprint from:
“Westerns are dead.”
“Period pieces are dead.”
“Big comedy is dead.”
“Small comedy is dead.”
(Guess that leaves dumb, middle-of-the-road comedy alive and well.)
But the one genre gleefully eulogized on the regular from The Washington Post toThe Daily Beast? Romcoms. Apparently, “Romantic comedies are super deadsies.”
And I’ve written under that catchall of romcom befuddlery from the first line of script I ever typed. To the point, I’m ridiculously cagey when asked about my chosen genre.
Me at a film fest:
What type of scripts do I write? Umm, well,
I write dramedies with elements of comedy…
about relationships. What -- a romcom?
I’m sorry. I’m not familiar with that term.
That is, until I wandered into the “When Romance Met Comedy” talk at the Austin Film Festival paneled up with the unabashed romcom writer Tess Morris – writer of Man Up and pet owner of beloved cat named Nora Ephron.
If You Love the Genre, Write the Genre
From the start, Tess put the smackdown on all the romcom bad mouthing floating in the media ether: “If you love the genre, write the genre.”
Crappy films tarnish every genre, but none more so than piss-poor romantic comedies. For some reason, one overwrought romcom mess resets the genre back to DOA status.
But to write romcoms, you have to hunker down just a bit more. That’s why you write what you love – no matter the well-meaning advice from your mom, your dad, or your aspiring-actress second cousin who once got coffee for Emma Stone on La La Land.
Be you, dammit, and love smart romcoms if that’s your jam.
Outlining Is Incredibly Sexy
Michael quips about outlining, “It’s not sexy or fun but you gotta do it.”
Volley from Tess, “I’m surprised. My outlining is incredibly sexy.”
To try out Tess’s sexy outlining:
- Write 8 to 10 pages with just the plot of each scene. Leave subtext for later.
- Use the seven beats of romcoms from Billy Mernit’s Writing The Romantic Comedy. (BTWs, this book is quite the Narnia discovery for all romcom writers.)
- “And then I write it and it’s shit.”
For #3, I must admit, my heart went a bit squee. For some reason, I always envision my hero writers breezing through drafts, gifted with a special writer’s gene. I still like to hear we are all slogging through the same writing and rewriting mess... although some of us write sexier outlines than others.
Oh, and although Tess doesn’t write every day, she talked about keeping the writing swirl going at any time: “I have Post-Its by my bed and notebooks filled. It’s important to have lots of different ideas in different stages.”
Write in the Land of “What If”
The impetus for Man Up sprang out of Tess standing in Waterloo Station and being asked, “Are you my blind date?” and wondering what if she had said yes.
The Land of What If makes for the beginning of great stories and great loglines and gets you pointed in the right romcom direction.
Man Up – What if a messy woman going through things meets a messy guy?
When Harry Met Sally – What if men and women can and can’t be friends?
Trainwreck – What if a drunk girl was standing in front of a guy, asking him to love her?
A way more playful option to uncover your logline and the core of your smart romcom.
Romcoms Play Nicely in Other Countries
So, if romcoms aren’t dead, then they certainly don’t play internationally, right? Not so quick.
Tess shared this eye opener about her film jumping the pond: “Man Up had a really interesting international journey. It came out really small in the U.S. Then four to five months later, hit number 3 on iTunes and then high up on NetFlix.”
She says we all need to get out of the mindset that no one wants to read or make a romcom.
“It’s taken time but no one thought it [Man Up] wouldn’t get made,” Tess shares.
It’s that bold rallying call of believe bigger than your haters. If you don’t believe in your story, executives and producers will suss out your hesitancy and tune you out. So start stacking the romcom pitching in your favor.
Looking for manager? Find someone who believes in romcoms and has other romcom writer clients.
Looking for production companies to pitch? Research those that made your fav romcoms.
“Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside,” right? (Thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda.)
Finally, Call a Romcom a Romcom... or Maybe Not?
Tess sticks up for the old school use of romcom for the genre. But Scott and Marc do demur to “relationship movie” if an executive or producer looks like they are a flight risk. (Scott: “But even then, sometimes they’re like, ‘Are there superheroes?’”)
Just be aware that what you might give up in phrasing is less important than getting that romcom/relationship film made.
But don’t start to think a romcom by any other name can be lazy writing. Audiences won’t accept slapstick buffoonery and cliché meet cutes.
Tess wrote Man Up because she was in her early 30s and single and felt like most of her female friends weren’t represented in films. And you have your own writer’s view on dating and marriage and the whole stumbly bumbly mess that are relationships and life. Don’t let your voice be silenced by crappy romcoms that have journeyed before you or naysayers trouncing your chosen genre.
Rally around righteously smart romcoms and let's elevate the genre together.
Please join me…
“Hi, I write smart romcoms about complicated relationships, and no, romcoms are not dead.”
Get tips on writing a successful romcom with Steve Kaplan's on-demand webinar
I'll Have What She's Having; The Art of Romantic Comedy