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What does ‘Anyone But You’s’ box office success mean for rom-coms? We asked the director

By Ryan Faughnder, Los Angeles Times
Published: February 18, 2024, 6:02am

LOS ANGELES — As the success of Sony Pictures’ “Anyone But You” has shown, Hollywood might have been too quick to give up on the romantic comedy as a big box-office driver for movie theaters.

Rom-coms had gone from being a reliable source of ticketing revenue to a genre that seemed largely doomed to be devoured through streaming services, which would forever churn out low-budget small-screen simulacrums of the star-studded blockbusters that helped define the 1990s and 2000s.

But “Anyone But You” has given fans some fresh hope.

The R-rated flick, starring Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell, got off to a modest start over the Christmas weekend but caught a wave of word-of-mouth and online virality.

Despite lukewarm reviews, the movie has grossed more than $150 million worldwide, including $76.3 million in the U.S. and Canada. It also led to the surprising resurgence of Natasha Bedingfield’s 2004 adult contemporary hit “Unwritten” as a latent Gen Z cultural touchstone.

The Times caught up with director Will Gluck, whose other features have included “Easy A” with Emma Stone, “Friends With Benefits” with Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, 2014’s “Annie” remake and the animated-live-action hybrid “Peter Rabbit.”

Q: “Anyone But You” opened over Christmas break and made a certain amount of money (a meager $8 million over the long weekend). And then it had this really strong hold. When did it become clear to you that this was connecting with audiences?

A: Well, yeah, “a certain amount of money.” That’s a euphemism for “no amount of money.” After Christmas, you see the daily box office numbers, right? And we saw that the numbers were not only not dropping but actually increasing, and that was around the time that it kind of started to go viral. It was totally an organic thing.

We just started watching all these TikToks of people having fun with the song. And once that song started going, then the box office started increasing. And then the TikToks and the Instagrams started talking about the actual movie. It became something that everyone really wanted to do and not miss out on during the break.

Internationally, it wasn’t that slow of a burn because people already heard about it.

Q: Right. It opened first in the U.S. then it went international, and by that time it was already kind of a thing online. And you don’t always expect a romantic comedy — or any American comedy, really — to play overseas in that way.

A: I kept a log of all the different predictions and tracking of what this movie was supposed to make from about five months ago until now. And actually it could make a business story in itself.

Q: What were people saying?

A: Well, romantic comedies don’t do well internationally. And this movie didn’t have gigantic stars like George Clooney and Julia Roberts [as Universal’s 2022 hit “ Ticket to Paradise “ did], so the expectations were purposely very low. And now they’re not. Our business is interesting because it’s like 60 to 70 years of data and math. So whenever something is an outlier, people need to have an explanation. And this one’s been kind of tough to explain. I have my own theories.

Q: What’s your theory?

A: It’s a fun movie. People want to go to movies with each other and they want to have fun. There haven’t been a lot of fun movies for a long time. Why do these movies always go to streaming? It’s because studios don’t put them in theaters. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once people found out through TikTok that this is a really fun movie to go to with your friends, it became something to do. And that’s what it used to be when we were growing up. That’s kind of stopped for a lot of different reasons, mostly because they’re on streaming.

Q: I’ve seen different theories of why this movie in particular is working. The two stars, Sweeney and Powell, are on the ascent. The Natasha Bedingfield song. The Australian scenery.

A: Yeah, it’s a big budget [$25 million, estimated]; it’s Australia. Plus, in all of Western Europe and in the U.S., it’s freezing right now. You want to go and see beautiful Australia and beautiful people in a theater. There’s no question.

There’s a lot of different markers of success. Everyone’s trying to figure out why it’s working, with the virality and the song and everything. I’m biased because I’m the director, but I think it’s the movie. People are continuing to go out because they’re enjoying themselves in the movie. And at some point, we have to stop trying to think about all the exterior circumstances and come back to — they’re having a fun time at the movie.

Q: The rom-com genre has definitely been looked at as mostly a streaming proposition over the last several years. Does something like this change the outlook? Or do studios look at it and say, “That’s a fluke.”

A: Not at all. It’s giving hope that any genre could work in theaters. It’s not just the rom-com. It’s any non-IP genre. I think this is showing you that if you have a movie that people really want to see and have a need to see with people, there’s still a business for it. It hasn’t dried up.

All the naysayers in our business saying that people are never gonna go back to theaters … They’re not gonna go back to theaters unless there’s a reason for them to go back. What this movie shows us is that there are a lot of different reasons to go back to theaters, not the ones that we just immediately think of.

Q: Throughout your career, you’ve often done comedies with stars on the rise, like “Easy A” with Emma Stone. Also “Friends With Benefits,” though Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake were big by that point …

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A: People hadn’t heard of Peter Rabbit before we made him a star. He was a rabbit who just needed a break.

Q: True. I expect big things from him.

A: He’s just gotta stay off the pipe, is all.

Q: What draws you to these types of stories and projects?

A: All my movies have been surprises. Every one has been a big “overcome” in terms of making and marketing it. I like to make movies about human beings and about people (except for “Peter Rabbit,” of course). And those historically have been smaller movies, right? So with smaller movies, you have to be more scrappy about how you do it. And I just love making movies that are funny. And those aren’t “big idea” movies. None of our movies have been big ideas, which is always hard to overcome in the marketing. But once you get it made, the upside is much higher.

That’s the fun part of our business. The opportunities are still there. If this movie was on streaming, the Natasha Bedingfield song wouldn’t be, like, No. 6 on Spotify right now. People would’ve seen it at home; they’d be on their phones and not really paying attention. The other day I popped in to see the end of the movie, because I was at the theater watching something else. Everyone in the theater was laughing and singing at the very end and having a good time. It’s that feeling that you can’t replicate at home.

There’s two different products, and the product of seeing a movie like this in the theater is a completely different product from seeing this movie at home. And I think that is the one thing that will never go away as long as people keep making movies that give you that group feeling.

Q: Did it surprise you that the song became the thing that kind of sparked a lot of this?

A: Everything is surprising. You can’t “eventize” something. Marketing cannot eventize. An event has to happen on its own. Can you kind of goose it once it happens? Can you amplify it? Sure. I would never have guessed that the song would have done what it did. Yes, it was a fun song. And yes, we had a fun thing at the end. But I think if we had started out saying, “Let’s do this thing to get people to dance in theaters,” it would have been dead on arrival.

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