Rom-coms are not getting love at the box office — and Bros is no different

Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane are the boy and the bro in love in the new rom-com Bros, from director Nicholas Stoller. (Universal Studios - image credit)
Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane are the boy and the bro in love in the new rom-com Bros, from director Nicholas Stoller. (Universal Studios - image credit)

A budget estimated to be around $22 million US. A heavily hyped comedy from the filmmakers of Trainwreck and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. A flick starring internet phenom Billy Eichner.

Bros was supposed to have it all: laughs and a historic status as the first gay rom-com from a major studio.

But by the end of opening weekend, the film earned an underwhelming $4.9 million US in North America — far less than $8 to 10 million the studio had predicted.

In fact, more people paid to see the re-release of the 2009 film Avatar than Bros.

Eichner, the film's writer and star, shared his frustration tweeting, "Even with glowing reviews, great Rotten Tomatoes scores, an 'A' CinemaScore etc., straight people, especially in certain parts of the country, just didn't show up for Bros."

Losing love for rom-coms

While Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian applauds Universal for swinging for the fences, he says the rom-com genre is struggling right now.

Back in the late '90s and early 2000s the situation was different: Romantic comedies made up a much bigger portion of the box office. Scrolling through a list of the biggest rom-coms of all time is a trip back to the 2000s, with monster hits such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Hitch and What Women Want.

This past weekend, though, it was the horror film Smile that audiences wanted; it trounced Bros, earning $22 million US.

While the horror genre has seen an uptick in quality over the years, Dergarabedian says the opposite has happened with romantic comedy.

Universal Studios
Universal Studios

Cracking the comedy code 

Another challenge with Bros may have been its lack of star power. While Eicher is well known for his Billy on the Street videos, the film lacked A-list talent. Compare that to The Lost City, another rom-com released earlier this year, which featured Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum: it cracked $100 million US domestically.

High-profile stars are "a great way to crack the code on comedy and get audiences [back] into the theatre," says Dergarabedian.

But generally, he says, audiences don't flock to theatres for laughs the way they used to. "The unlimited availability of comedic content on the small screen was brought into even sharper focus during the pandemic."

Strong ratings and reviews

For Bros, it isn't an issue of quality. The film is currently enjoying a 90 per cent critic rating and 91 per cent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Gay Toronto film critic Pat Mullen says he considers Bros the funniest film he's seen this year.  "I thought it was just such a refreshing and inclusive portrait of gay life, in sort of your typical romantic-comedy tradition."

Universal Studios
Universal Studios

Mullen also says he doesn't agree with Eichner's comments, putting the blame on straight audiences.

"There was a portion of the queer audience that didn't go out, and that's actually more concerning," he says, noting there's a lot at stake for an audience who want to see their stories on screen.

WATCH | Billy Eichner talk about making Bros and helping audiences escape:

Taking a page from Top Gun

Speaking with CBC News at the Bros world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Eichner said all he wanted was to "make people laugh out loud consistently from start to finish and make people feel good."

If that's the case, Mullen says, Bros should have followed the lead of the summer smash Top Gun: Maverick and sold the theatrical experience.

"You need to see it in a theatre," he said, recalling that seeing Bros at TIFF, at the Princess of Wales theatre, "with a crowd of 2,000 people who were just laughing throughout the movie really reminded me of why I like going to the movies … in the first place."

The rom-com formula will be once again put to the test when Ticket to Paradise, starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney, opens in theatres on Oct. 21.

WATCH | Groundbreaking as it is, Bros leans into rom-com clichés: