Last year, the crowd-pleaser movies were about pregnant women —"Knocked Up" with Katherine Heigl — and pregnant teens, as in "Juno".
This year, Hollywood, that town famous for flash marriages and ugly breakups, is throwing rice (and divorce stats) to the winds and serving up a slew of films about weddings.
So what's that about? Industry observers say in a summer beset by rising food and gas prices and ongoing wars overseas, "Tinseltown" is returning to a tried-and-true formula: happily ever after equals wedding.
Who better to explain this movie phenomenon than a true romance expert. Antonia van der Meer, editor in chief of Modern Bride magazine, says people love love. "In general, people love to see other people happy, and we love seeing weddings in movies because it makes us happy."
Less romantic observers say it has a lot to do with the growing economic clout of female moviegoers. But more on that later.
Take some of the blockbusters of the summer. "Sex and the City?" Less about sex, more about a wedding. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?" Snakes, skulls, Soviet spies, and it all winds up at a wedding. "Mamma Mia!?" A kooky wedding in gorgeous Greece, set to ABBA songs, opening July 18. (The new twist in all these: The romantic protagonists are over 40, a reminder that it's not just the young who buy movie tickets.)
Other wedding-dominated romantic comedies, or rom-coms, are filling theaters this year: "27 Dresses", "Made of Honor" and "What Happens in Vegas". Coming up: "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", "The Accidental Husband", "Rachel Getting Married", "The Proposal", "Bride Wars" and "When in Rome". Weddings are even in art-house films, such as the upcoming "The Stone Angel".
What gives? Well, the bottom line, of course. And gauzy romance, naturally. A bit of mythology, some literary history and heaping helpings of psychology.
It's a party, unlike pregnancy
Let's start at the newsstands, groaning with the 10-pound bridal magazines likely to reap some profits from Hollywood's marital bliss. It's a two-way street: The audience influences the movies, the movies influence the audience. Van der Meer says brides are so impressed by what they see at the movies that she predicts "Mamma Mia!" will send scores to the Greek islands next year for destination weddings.
At a recent early screening of the frothy musical, there was an audible gasp from the audience when the screen filled with a stunning panoramic shot of a Greek chapel perched on a craggy hill overlooking the sea, with a winding stone staircase lined with candles.
"We're all complete suckers for a wedding in real life. If you see a bride on the street, she's always surrounded by a crowd of complete strangers attracted to her," van der Meer says. "We're hard-wired to love a bride."
Hollywood, being Hollywood, is expert at recycling whatever is cool and hip at the moment. In this calculus, van der Meer says, weddings have more enduring power as a cool, hip topic than pregnancy because, after all, a wedding is a party. Pregnancy is so not a party.
"The simple answer is that audiences really like weddings," says Anne Thompson, film historian, blogger and deputy editor of Variety.com. "It isn't coming from Hollywood's soul; it's coming from where the boffo box office may lie."
But still. We're taking lessons about happily-ever-after from matrimonially challenged Hollywood because … why, exactly?
"Even though there are not a lot of good marriages in Hollywood, we wish that they would last. It's why we continue to be interested whenever anyone in Hollywood gets married," van der Meer says.
The triumph of hope over experience, indeed.
Women revive romantic comedies
So let's get to the bottom line: "Sex and the City" is doing well at the box office, having grossed more than $130 million and counting. Film producer and novelist Galt Niederhoffer says Hollywood should pay attention.
"It's the biggest romantic-comedy opening in the history of the world, because women went to see it," she says. "This movie is not only about women over 40 as sexual protagonists, but it's being bought by women and driven by them and is making money for the studios. It's a big message to the moviemaking community."
Not for the first time, says David Poland, editor in chief at MovieCityNews.com, which covers the film industry and closely tracks the box office. He says filmmaking is an art form built on cycles: Over time, rom-coms, and the weddings they often feature, have been hot, then not, then hot again.
"The reason we're seeing another wave is the success of "The Devil Wears Prada" and comedies that focus on women finding love," says Poland. "There's a renewed interest in romantic comedies because women are going to see these movies in a way we've not seen for a couple of years.
"It was a dead format for a while, and everyone was focusing on teenage boys," he says, referring to anything loud and fast with lots of things blowing up.
So, for the moment, chick flicks are hot again, and one way to keep up the heat: Drop a wedding in the plot. "Because for 500 years, the fairy tale always ends that way," Poland says. "It's harder to say you have a 'happy ending' if they end up just living together — even if that's more true to real life."
Audiences already know the ending
Oral literature, Norse and Greek mythology, Shakespeare's plays, Jane Austen's novels — the most enduring human stories often culminate in a wedding, Niederhoffer says. "It coincides with our interest in romance, love and procreation. It's as old as time."
Niederhoffer, whose new novel, "The Romantics" (out July 8), is set in the 24 hours leading up to a proper high-WASP wedding (her film company will be making the movie), suggests this longevity is partly due to the mechanics of storytelling: "Plots thrive on happy endings and inevitability." And it's partly due to female psychology and worries about childbearing and financial stability.
"Over the last 10 to 20 years, (rom-coms) have been barometers for women's anxieties," she says. "They are ways of working out feelings on the age-old question: Is marriage the ultimate happy ending?" What audiences, or at least female audiences, crave "is a whitewashing of the extreme anxiety and darkness that people feel around this subject."
Which is a fancy way of saying, "These are wish-fulfillment movies," says Leonard Maltin, film critic and historian for Entertainment Tonight. "Romantic comedies are inherently challenging to make because the audience already knows how it's going to end — with a happy ending, because that's the contract Hollywood has with the audience — so you better make it darn entertaining along the way," he says.
But, as Thompson says, maybe the simple answer is the best answer. She watched "Sex and the City" in a theater filled with women. "There was one moment when you could hear a pin drop — when (there was a) question whether (the groom) would show up for the wedding. They cared very much whether he did.
"Women are hard-wired from birth to believe that the right marriage is going to lead to happiness, and for the most part, that hope still resides in their hearts."
Sure, it's a fantasy. But that's what movies are for. Right?