Why Hasn't Online Dating Made It Onscreen?

Jun 14, 2017
Originally published on June 14, 2017 9:17 am

Hollywood movies love technology. Because so many of us hate it.

Technology represents the new, the unknown, which makes it the chewiest of film fodder. For years now, genre movies have eagerly played into our collective unease with the tech that surrounds us.

In spy movies like the Bourne series, the specter of 24-hour digital surveillance evokes our feelings of paranoia and dread.

In popcorn science-fiction films like the Terminator series and the art-house sci-fi of Ex Machina and, seminally, 2001: A Space Odyssey, computers are forever achieving sentience and threatening humanity's very existence.

And as for horror movies? Well.

They're ... not particularly subtle about it.

The Ring (2002) and its 2016 sequel, Rings? A video that kills you.

One Missed Call (2008)? Cellphones that kill you.

Unfriended (2014)? Skype that kills you.

Jeruzalem (2015) Google Glass that kills you.

The Paranormal Activity franchise? Digital cameras that capture you being mysteriously — but most emphatically — killed.

But there'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 (whether through sites like Match.com or smartphone apps like Tinder) is, for millions of people, a simple fact of life — the New Normal. A 2013 University of Chicago study, for example, found that more than one-third of marriages now begin online, and that number is only expected to increase.

So why is Hollywood churning out so many movies where technology leads to painful, terrifying death, but is reluctant to make movies where that same tech leads to love?

Not enough rom-coms?

Maybe it's simply a numbers game: we're not living in a time when Hollywood's producing a lot of romantic comedies (this summer's excellent The Big Sick notwithstanding), so there's fewer opportunities for them to grapple with online dating.

Lack of tension?

But maybe it's something about the nature of the genre. Sarah Wendell, who runs the website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which critiques and celebrates romance novels, knows a little something about rom-com story structure.

"When you have a romantic comedy," she says, "part of the story's central tension is whatever's preventing your characters from getting a happy ending. Something's in their way. But when you have them use technology to actively seek out another person, you lower that tension — which is where the comedy comes from."

Boring visuals?

Christine Vachon, whose company, Killer Films, produced movies like Carol and Still Alice, thinks it comes down to the onscreen visuals. Or rather, the lack of them.

"Watching two people meet in a visually clever way is a lot more interesting than people swiping right or left," she says.

But she's quick to add that this may change.

"I think you can [make movies about online dating], I just don't think we have yet," she says. "I think you can make anything cinematically compelling. I just think that there's some sort of visual language that we haven't quite cracked yet."

Out-of-touch gatekeepers?

But even if some future screenwriter figures out how to crack that language, that's only the first step. Comedian Guy Branum, who's pitched a screenplay or two in his time, says they'd still have to get the script past studio executives, which won't be easy.

"People who are greenlighting rom-coms are still men in their 50s," he says, "who have not integrated social media or dating apps in their lives — they never had to, because they didn't exist. They all got married in 1986 and were rich enough that they didn't need help to find a second wife in 1999."

Branum writes for Hulu's The Mindy Project, which — like a lot of TV shows — features characters texting and clicking and swiping all the time. But he's not surprised that film studios are still reluctant to show people using tech in realistic ways.

"A big problem is that we no longer make movies that reflect reality," he says. "The movies we are good at making are talking cars that transforms into robots or something smashing into the Earth or people going into space. We have to some extent forgotten how to make movies about people."

For her part, producer Christine Vachon is a bit more hopeful. She just thinks Hollywood needs some time.

"The movie business is always afraid of what it doesn't completely understand," she says. "But our cinematic language always shifts and adjusts to the times that we're in."

In the meantime ...

That shift she talks about may have already started, but to see it you have to look beyond the rom-com. Weirdly enough, it's science fiction that's exploring the space where romance and technology come together — in films like 2014's Ex Machina and — especially — 2013's Her.

In that film, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely guy who installs an artificial intelligence — voiced by Scarlett Johansson— onto his computer.

And then falls in love with it.

It's not Match.com, but for several different reasons, it's probably as close as Hollywood's going to get ... for now.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hollywood movies love technology.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) OK, satellite imagery coming through.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Roger that...

MARTIN: Spy movies, science fiction movies, horror movies - they've all been playing on our collective unease with technology for a long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RINGS")

ALEX ROE: (As Holt) There's this video...

MARTIN: And they're not particularly subtle about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RINGS")

ROE: (As Holt) It kills you seven days after you watch it.

MARTIN: Videos that kill you, cellphones that kill you, Skype that kills you - Hollywood turns out tons of movies where everyday technology leads to terrifying death. NPR's Glen Weldon reports that filmmakers are still struggling with how to bring everyday tech into romantic comedies.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: It's been a long time since we've gotten a movie that dealt realistically with online dating - like, a really long time...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOU'VE GOT MAIL")

MEG RYAN: (As Kathleen Kelly) I turn on my computer.

WELDON: ...1998.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOU'VE GOT MAIL")

RYAN: (As Kathleen Kelly) I go online.

AUTOMATED VOICE #1: Welcome.

TOM HANKS: (As Joe Fox) Welcome.

RYAN: (As Kathleen Kelly) And my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words - you've got mail.

WELDON: That was almost two decades ago. And according to a study from the University of Chicago in 2013, over one-third of marriages now begin online. So why aren't today's romantic comedies reflecting that fact? Christine Vachon, whose company, Killer Films, produced movies like "Carol" and "Still Alice," says the answer is how it looks on screen.

CHRISTINE VACHON: Watching two people meet in a visually clever way - it's a lot more interesting than people swiping right or left.

WELDON: She's got a point. So does that mean it'll never happen? You just can't make movies where people meet online.

VACHON: I think you can. I just don't think we have yet. I think you can make anything cinematically compelling. I just think that there's some sort of visual language that we haven't quite cracked yet.

WELDON: OK, so let's say some future screenwriter figures out how to crack that language. Comedian Guy Branum says they'd still have to get the script studio executives, which won't be easy.

GUY BRANUM: People who are greenlighting romantic comedies are still men in their 50s who have not integrated social media or dating apps in any way and never had to integrate them into their lives because they didn't exist. They all got married in 1986 and then, you know, were rich enough that they didn't need help finding a second wife in 1999.

WELDON: Branum writes for Hulu's "The Mindy Project," which, like a lot of TV shows, features characters texting and clicking and swiping all the time. But he's not surprised that film studios are still reluctant to show people using tech in realistic ways.

BRANUM: A big problem is that we no longer make movies that reflect reality. The movies we are good at making involve talking cars that transform into robots or something smashing into the earth or people going into space. We have, to some extent, forgotten how to make movies about people.

WELDON: Producer Christine Vachon is a bit more hopeful.

VACHON: The movie business is always very afraid of what it doesn't - what it doesn't completely understand.

WELDON: She thinks Hollywood just needs time to catch up.

VACHON: Our cinematic language, it seems to me, always shifts and adjusts to the times that we're in.

WELDON: That shift may have already started, but to see it, you have to look beyond the rom-com. Weirdly enough, it's science fiction that's exploring the space where romance and technology come together in films like 2013's "Her."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HER")

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: Please wait as your individualized operating system is initiated.

WELDON: Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely guy who installs an artificial intelligence - voiced by Scarlett Johansson - onto his computer, then falls in love with it. No, it's not match.com, but it's probably as close as Hollywood's going to get for now.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HER")

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Samantha) Hello, I'm here.

WELDON: Glen Weldon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.