This morning, NPR Morning Edition ran a story called, “Why Hasn’t Online Dating Made it Onscreen?” Of course, as the story discusses, online dating has made it onto TV screens, and studios have made tons of tech-that-kills sci-fi and horror movies. But, the story points out, “[T]here’s one movie genre that’s still struggling to incorporate the everyday tech of contemporary life into the stories it tells: the romantic comedy. Which is notable — and very, very odd — because online dating…is, for millions of people, a simple fact of life — the New Normal.”
Turns out, I’ve got a little insight into this, since I actually wrote an online dating script almost a decade ago, and it got *this close* to finding a happy home at one of a number of production companies, before simply disappearing into the ether.
NPR spoke with film producer Christine Vachon, who said that the problem was visual, since it’s cinematically boring to watch people swipe right and swipe left, etc. That’s probably true, but it’s also not what generates the drama in a story, so hopefully nobody would be spending a ton of screen time on swiping left and right.
The NPR story also spoke to TV writer Guy Branum, who I think is closer to the problem when he says any script you write has to get past studio execs to greenlight it. NPR reporter Glen Weldon said, “Let’s say some future screenwriter…”
And that’s when I decided to write this post. Because I was that screenwriter in…like, 2007?…and I guarantee that there have been more like me and, frankly, who are better than me, that have come up with compelling scripts, but they’ve not been made.
Here’s what happened with mine:
In 2007, I wrote a script called Backwards Compatible about a data guy who is engaged to an artist, and has to sign up for a profile on an online dating service that is a client. It’s assigned work research, but among his matches he finds “the one that got away” — the girl he had a crush on growing up but always seemed unattainable. He gets some questionable advice and decides to try to meet this woman.
On the surface, the guy and his fiancee don’t have that much in common, but they bring out the best in each other. They’re not the couple you’d expect, but they make a good team. But this other woman represents the “what if…?” in life. His meeting with her, which he at first refuses to call a date, goes really well and they see each other more. He starts asking himself about all the other roads he never traveled, all the things he was too scared to try to do, and he winds up getting way into the weeds and kind of losing any real sense of himself. Meanwhile, he’s trying to keep his engagement on the rails, and all this other stuff secret…you get it.
The script got me a manager and a bunch of meetings. I’m not going to mention any names in this account, but I had the head of development at a very active company belonging to an A-list romcom kind of actress tell me that they’d been trying to crack the nut of an online dating script for over a year, and my script was the best take they’d seen. Backwards got set up at a different company, though — a big, Academy Award-nominated producer’s company, where they had one woman in charge of comedy in an otherwise all-male development office focusing mainly on action movies. I went to that exec’s birthday party, and had *another* exec from another company, also a woman, come up out of the blue and tell me that Backwards Compatible was her favorite romcom script she’d read since she’d been in development.
Then the writer’s strike happened. When the dust settled, my exec had been moved over to TV, and the management company I’d been with went kaput. Nevertheless, Backwards Compatible found a new home at a different company. I did a few more drafts, and finally it went up out of the hands of a female development exec to her boss, and he killed it. Said he, “didn’t get it.” There was also a potential actor attachment, but that guy burned some bridges and hasn’t been heard of much since then. Nevertheless, another producing team got a hold of the script, and we started developing it as a TV movie for a cable channel that wanted the location changed from Los Angeles to Nashville, so I did that. That was in 2011 or 2012. I’d been working on the script, not exclusively, but actively, for four years, and I was just done with it after the network finally passed. You can read that final version here, if you want. There are things I’d do differently today, but that’s where it was left.*
Here are some factors to which I attribute the slow demise of perhaps my most-loved original screenplay:
- Like Guy Branum said in the NPR piece, to get a script through the studio system and greenlit, you have to get it past guys in their fifties who have never had to deal with online dating. That’s true, but those guys also…
- Probably don’t give a shit about romantic comedies, nor are they…
- Often willing to take the advice of women who work with or for them.
- The demise of the “$30 million-dollar movie” hit the romantic comedy harder than possibly any other genre
- A bunch of shitty romantic comedies (many with one particularly unlikable actress) got made and didn’t do much at the box office, so it scared execs away
So in the end, I don’t think a studio’s going to make a great romantic comedy about online dating because there’s no incentive for them to do it. In fact, they’ve been actively dis-incentivized against making romantic comedies at all. Even if a lot of the real-world stuff you can point to might undermine that argument, I know the word in town at the time got to be that romantic comedies were unwelcome as development properties.
By now, since online dating has become such a staple of everyday life, the novelty has worn off, and there’s no reason to make an online dating romantic comedy, to tell the truth. The thing I liked about my script wasn’t the online dating aspect — that was only used as a vehicle to get to the “what if/grass is always greener” struggle. That’s something that I think is universal to the human experience, and worth making a movie about. If you try to make a movie based on any technology, that technology’s going to become obsolete, and quite possibly, your movie will be dated by the time it comes out.
I don’t think you need a new visual language for “some future screenwriter” to figure out, you just have to figure out a compelling human story to tell that the technology helps you unlock. TV’s already doing that, so this feels like a puzzle no studio is interested in solving.
*I don’t want this to come across only as “my script should’ve gotten made!” lament. I’d have liked that, sure, but there are issues with the script, and I understand that. This is about the larger point of why this topic is a particular challenge for movies, written based on personal experience, rather than academic conjecture. That’s all.